Does personal storytelling belong in politics?

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Image: Michael Shaheen/Flickr

It's now axiomatic for aspiring candidates that, "When you run for office, you not only have to focus on the issues, you have to showcase yourself." That's from the "National Democratic Training Committee" in the U.S. but it's globalized wisdom. "You do this by weaving your personal experiences into your campaign message. This is your personal narrative." I.e., Tell Your Story.

So we have a recent publication, Jagmeet Singh's Love & Courage: My Story of Family, Resilience, and Overcoming the Unexpected, that the publisher, perhaps protesting too much, calls "not a political memoir." It includes, based on excerpts and interviews, a moving if reticent account of childhood sexual abuse by a coach and reconciliation with an alcoholic dad. This is standard. Justin Trudeau published Common Ground just before the last election. Andrew Scheer's personal narrative will only take me by surprise if it doesn't happen.

Oddly, this wasn't always normal. FDR, the only U.S. president elected four times, had a gripping personal narrative that he strove successfully to conceal. He'd acquired polio in adulthood, while swimming, and couldn't walk unassisted. He hid it. He did get personal, in radio "chats," but about public issues and fears. Ronald Reagan, also a winner, got personal -- in anecdotes about "typical" voters.

We reached the bottom of political storytelling's slippery slope at last Monday's CNN candidate-a-thon with "Mayor Pete" Buttigieg of Indiana, who explained "it's important that we not drown people in minutiae before we've vindicated the values that animate our policies," i.e. tell our stories. You rarely see such unveiled contempt for what he'd actually do as president, though it also fits Obama, who as a candidate was largely narrative and plot line.

The result is you get people voting for a storyline rather than a government. Beto O'Rourke did well for awhile but ran out of plot. Elizabeth Warren does a little potted version of her bio, marked by diminishing vocal "Yays" as her own kind of internal chorus, which sound like she practised them in front of a mirror. If it's not your game, you really shouldn't play it.

The template outdid itself in Sunday's Ukraine election which voted for a storyline about a guy who's a character, literally, in a TV sitcom. I'd say we've officially reached absurdity except that's already happened. Volodymyr Zelensky is/was star of Servant of the People, an obscure high school history teacher whose rant against corruption goes viral and he becomes president. It's a perfectly competent series that ran for four years. It's not Veep, but what is?

The party he ran for has the same name and logo as the show. His most visible policy was: outsider offended by corruption will fight it. That's not a platform, it's his show's plot line. He obliterated the incumbent (in the actual election). What both show and campaign omitted was close ties to a Ukrainian oligarch who owns the network and wants compensation for a bank that was expropriated. Zelinsky, indistinguishably from his character, denies it'll happen.

For voters, telling Your story is vexing since stories are inherently false and unreliable -- it's why we love them. They're manipulative, contrived evasions of the uncontrollable nature of lived reality, which is, as my garrulous English prof liked saying, "deficient in resolubility." They "tie it all up." This year's series of the cop show Endeavour, ended improbably but (for that reason) satisfyingly, with -- mild spoiler alert -- the traffic squad riding to the rescue of homicide dicks.

Nor are storylines always gripping. The current Fosse/Verdon series has a pedestrian plot but the recreations of musical numbers like "Hey Big Spender" are riveting. The equivalent in narratives like Singh's would be skipping biographical stuff and elevating policy items. You'd end up with pharmacare and little else.

Let me confess, I've made the argument I'm now trashing -- for storytelling over policy planks -- in the past, since leaders must often deal with unexpected challenges (Jody Wilson-Raybould!) so that what matters isn't policies they've advocated; it's our sense of how they'll deal with crises based on our sense of who they are.

I don't know how to square that view with the contempt I now feel for individual storylining but at any rate, it's part of my personal narrative.

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Michael Shaheen/Flickr

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