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Lisa Murkowski, Gunslinger?

November 24, 2010

When journalists cover events, they call it a story.  Put several stories together and you have a media narrative.  But these narratives are more than just stories; they change the way we understand past political events, and the way we interpret future ones.

When Lisa Murkowski, 2010 candidate for U.S. Senate from Alaska, declared victory last week, journalists and political commentators were quick to speculate on what story Murkowski’s victory told.  Most media narratives made Murkowski’s victory into a “refudiation” of Palin’s political influence, but my favorite media narrative has to be the Murkowskis and the Palins as the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Murkowski ran against Joe Miller, a Tea Party candidate who beat her in the Republican primary with the help of the Tea Party Express and, significantly, Sarah and Todd Palin.  Murkowski chose to enter the race anyway as a write-in candidate.  Although the race is still technically undecided, the Associated Press has called it for Murkowski.  The resulting coverage has heavily featured the relationship between Murkowski and the Palins, which stems from Palin’s defeat of Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, in an Alaskan gubernatorial primary in 2006.

Media narratives are nothing new.  In fact, journalism itself is often called the art of telling a story (think who, what, when, where and why).  But media narratives often do more than recount current events; they also tell us how to interpret future ones.  The Hatfield and McCoy narrative comes from a CNN column written by John Avlon:

Murkowski’s win was a direct repudiation of Palin’s chosen nominee, Joe Miller. And while the Murkowski and Palin families have a political rivalry that resembles the Hatfields and the McCoys, it’s still significant that the newly elected Murkowski is speaking out against a possible Palin 2012 run in terms you rarely hear in Washington.

Avlon carefully qualifies his narrative—notice that the statement about the Hatfields and the McCoys is written as an “And while…” phrase.  The Hatfield-McCoy narrative is still important, however, because it tells us how to interpret the relationship between Murkowski and Palin.  Coverage from Politico suggests a similar narrative for the Palin-Murkowski feud:

And like any good action-movie character mistakenly left for dead, Murkowski’s coming back with a vengeance, picking fights with Palin and the party’s activist wing.

These comparisons suggest a personal rivalry, not a political one.  The Hatfields and the McCoys didn’t run against one another in political contests, they shot each other.  Action movie heroes don’t shake hands with villains at the end of the movie, one of them—usually the villain—ends up dead, in jail or falling to the bottom of an impossibly deep gorge.

It’s become something of a truism that American political discourse has turned personal.  As Bill Clinton and others have pointed out, many people see politics as a zero-sum game, in which “[t]here has to be a winner and a loser.”  I’m not convinced that this is a new thing, that Americans suddenly forgot how to compromise or have become more vulnerable to sports metaphors.

But, as a rhetorician, I am convinced that the way we talk about things influences the way we think about things (and, of course, vice-versa).  Rhetoricians have lots of ways of talking about the connection between language and thought.  I’ve used narrative here, but schemata theory might have done just as well.  Both are frameworks for interpreting events and information.  In the case of political commentary, both tell us pretty much the same thing: that how we talk about politics—how we imagine them in mass communication—influences how we learn about and understand political issues.

If we use a gunslinger narrative to talk about Murkowski’s victory, people are likely to see it that way. For better or for worse.

If you want to know more:

  • Daniel Dickson-LaPrade wrote an entry for us on public narratives.  He suggests starting with Walter Fisher’s Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action.  For the schemata theory of learning, I like Richard Anderson’s “The Notion of Schemata and the Educational Enterprise” as an entry point.
  • “Refudiation” is a famous Palinism.  Most agree that it’s a portmanteau or blend of “refute” and “repudiate.”  She used the word in a Twitter post about Park51, the planned Muslim community center to be located near Ground Zero.  She later changed the word to “refute.”
  • Here’s an account of Murkowski’s victory from CBS that alludes to the Palin-Murkowski conflict.  Much was made of Murkowski’s post-election comments about how she would not support Sarah Palin for president.  Here’s coverage from CNN, ABC, and the Huffington Post.
  • As an exercise in political narrative making, take your two favorite political rivals. Picture them in your head.  Ok, now try and remember that scene in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock where Captain Kirk kills Klingon Commander Kruge by kicking him off a ledge suspended over a lava flow while yelling “I…have had…enough of you!”  Now change Kirk and Kruge into your political rivals.  If you’re smiling right now, you’re too polarized.
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