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Surviving the Melodramocracy

The story, upside down. (photo: garryknight/flickr)

Republicans have spent decades branding Democrats as anti-capitalist collectivists bent on the destruction of private property and free enterprise. In the Right’s propa-melodrama, the leftist locomotive flattens virtuous Little Nells of capitalism after tying them to the railroad tracks of taxes with the ropes of regulation.

The character inversion is pure genius. In the classic American melodrama it’s usually a sinister Snidely whacking Little Nell so he can take her land. In other words, it’s the evil capitalist that threatens the sanctity of private property and the freedom and integrity of the individual.

As I’ve noted before, melodrama is such a pervasive narrative form in our politics and popular culture that we might well say we live in a melodramocracy. The form is inherently conservative as it always imagines a return to the past, to a safe and secure status quo that existed (at least in the imagination) before the trouble started.

In the form there are clearly identified heroes, villains, victims, hero’s helpers, etc. Causation is always simple and direct. The bad guy is to blame. The victim is blameless. The hero ultimately causes the villain’s failure. The form’s so wired in our brains that storytellers can simply supply a context and, say, a villain, and we supply the rest (usually ourselves as the potential victims and the narrator or protagonist as the hero).

Americans heard a complete melodramatic story when Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The melodramatic-shaped filter in our brains helped us identify as victims when we heard the words “our problem.” The teller, Reagan, was the hero who correctly identified the villain, “government.” The End.

It is just such narrative patterning that has turned regulations and taxation into villain’s tools of oppression. Americans and the unconscious media that’s passed the story along are so accustomed to the form and roles that what was once clearly melodramatic fiction is now taken for truth. Yesterday’s Snidely, the greedy crook taking what was rightfully Little Nell’s, is today’s Dudley Do-Right. Dudley is a socialist.

More dramatically, Americans are still swallowing the story even though in the real world today Little Nell is actually getting run over by a train. Whence the gullibility? Well, today’s Right-wing storytellers have added a Darwinian gothic end to the story. In their version, Little Nell must die because that is the price of our freedom.

For the record, I’m a law-and-order, open market advocate. I want cops to stop the robbers on the street. I want the white-collar cops to stop the Wall Street’s sociopaths from stealing the wealth of an entire nation while hiding behind free-market masks.

Because of decades of Republican propa-melodrama, I’m at a disadvantage on the public stage. When I advocate for new regulations to stop sociopathic predators from destroying whole economies, I’m recommending a tool (regulation) many Americans already believe is a rope that ties their virtuous, would-be-victim selves to the tracks. They have that story in their heads and the villains and victims sort themselves out accordingly, and usually not to my advantage.

Narratives are a kind of frame, and as brain science teaches us we cannot erase frames. We can, however, wire around them by creating new ones. We have to tell a different story. It’s one reason I used the phrase “law-and-order, open-market advocate” and made the analogy between financial crime and street crime. I could have said “free market” instead of “open market,” but by this late date the frame seems too fitted to the Right’s melodrama. Too much of their story might spill into mine.

There may be better frames and simpler ways to tell a story about the need for a community of equals to stand against the bullies who steal us blind. Democracy was born a long time ago in such cooperative, egalitarian efforts. You can read about that in “The Promise of Popular Democracy.” It’s difficult to escape the melodramatic mold, but we should try, because as noted the form itself is conservative in the sense that it always a bought a return to the past. In such a form change can seem dangerous. But when we need change, we must tell a story that makes it welcome.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith