Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Narrative Matters’

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Ben Shapiro was at the Heritage Foundation recently to talk about his new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Publisher HarperCollins describes the book as “the inside story of how the most powerful medium of mass communication in human history has become a propaganda tool for the Left.”

Shapiro made the point at Heritage (see the video of his talk here) that conservatives underestimate the power of narrative and its purpose — moving the emotions — and that’s the case we’ve been making here at the PowerBlog for some time.

“Narrative matters,” Shapiro said at Heritage. “Unfortunately, conservatives have abandoned narrative as an emotional tool … you hear it on talk radio all the time. We have all the logical arguments; we have the facts on our side; they just rely on emotion all the time. Yeah, [because] it works.”

But logical arguments aren’t often the stuff of mass entertainment. Liberals, on the other hand, move the emotions via story telling and write sympathetic characters who may “behave badly” yet advance their agenda. Shapiro:

They’re very clever about it; they recognize that if they slide their messaging in, it’s much more effective than if they simply come out and hit you in the head with a two-by-four.

In a May 2009 PowerBlog post about film making, not television, titled “Cheesy Christian Movies and the Art of Narrative,” I pointed out that “the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling.” That may have overstated the case somewhat, given that more and more films are coming to screens that conservatives can like (see NRO’s list of best conservative movies). But by and large the right is still much better at rhetoric than it is at storytelling. My main point from “Cheesy”:

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go.

Also see “Obama and the Moral Imagination” my Acton Commentary from January 2009 about the use of narrative in politics.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Any, the narrative!

    While philosophers matter, poets–even, and maybe even especially, bad poets matter more.

    Thanks for the post John!


  • Roger McKinney

    There has been a long debate over whether the media
    influences or reflects public morals and attitudes. I tend to lean toward its
    reflective role.


    Conservatives and Christians are bad at narrative because they
    want to preach too much. Narrative is about emotion, not facts, but
    conservatives and Christians refuse to accept that. Consumers of narrative
    consume it because they want to feel. Try to make them think and they’ll reject
    you, and that includes conservatives and Christians.

  • Michael Chovanec

    I think it’s about the message.  The essence of conservative thought is about concepts like unintended consequences, the so-called “forgotten man” problem and opportunity costs.  One opportunity cost of choosing progressive ideas and policies is the lack of character-building when the society subsidizes bad choices and punishes good ones.  The resulting problems, however, build up over time and by their nature lack narrative value since the costs are diffuse.     

    • I see your point Michael but it seems to me that the narrative problem is how to show the consequences of these ideas as revealed in character, action, plot — all those tools available to the storyteller.

  • Patrick Powers

    It’s odd that Jesus used story and parable so well, that it is not greater matter of meditation and teaching of our Christian heritage.