I’m working on an essay for TAC about storytelling and conservatism. I want to make a case that conservatives have lost the art of storytelling and its importance, and that its recovery is vital to a renascence of a vital conservatism — which is not the same thing as Republican Party victories! — which cannot be seeded through position papers, policy analysis, op-eds, and talk shows.
Anybody in this room have anything to say about it?
What about you? Which stories in your life have informed your conservatism — or effectively challenged it? What is the role of imagination in informing one’s principles? What about counternarratives?
Five years ago, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a good piece about why conservatives operate at such a deficit when it comes to fleshing out their principles with narrative. Yet narrative is so vital to sustaining any worldview, because it informs our imagination. I think about how all my theorizing and intellectualizing about place, rootlessness, and limits amounted to nothing until I saw those principles lived out in the lives of my dying sister and her community. It was only seeing what the incarnation of those principles meant that changed my heart, and moved me to action.
The thing is, stories — true stories — usually don’t offer us a neat moral or prescriptive plan of action. The story I told in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, the book I wrote about my epiphany, is clear about that in my own story. Similarly, the other day in this space, a Texas reader wrote about the death of his Panhandle town, offering a tale that was politically ambiguous, in the sense that it tells a story about how federal policies, promoted by both the New Deal left and the Reaganite right, played a role in the doom of his town. What I loved about that story was how the facts failed to conform to ideology. It’s possible to have read that story and come away with different political and policy conclusions. The reason the story meant so much to me is that it incarnated policy debate in the lives of real people, people who suffered greatly in large part because of policy decisions made in Washington. You read things like that and something as dry as policy becomes real, and our ideological abstractions (of the left and the right) seem incapable of describing the world as it is.
I think this is the main reason why same-sex marriage has won in this country: the power of narrative, and the control of narrative boundaries by the mainstream media. I say this not to complain, necessarily, but to understand how one of the most consequential social and political movements of our era succeeded. I’ll say no more here; saving it for the essay.
Anyway, what I’d like from you readers are some reflections on the power of story to inform one’s worldview, and to move one to action. What role should imagination play in informing our politics, and our cultural politics? Why are liberals so much better at this than conservatives — and is there anything about our culture today that makes narrative matter so much?
Please feel free to talk about the negative power of story, too — how stories can win our sympathy but lead us to embrace unwise courses of action. The power of story is ambiguous.
If you prefer to write to me privately on this, please do so at rod (at) amconmag.com. Unless you specifically say otherwise, assume that anything you send me might be used in my magazine piece.