Are the Narratives Going to Matter?

Assessing the Way Forward

November 9, 2020

Washington, DC, November 7, 2020. CREDIT: Ted Eytan (CC)

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

A month ago, on The Doorstep podcast, Nahal Toosi, who is Politico's foreign affairs reporter, discussed the competing narratives and policy preferences within the "big tent" of the Democratic Party and how, in the event that the Biden/Harris ticket prevailed in the presidential contest, all of this might play out. She observed:

. . . former U.S. officials who know him predict the former vice president will seek a middle path that is far from Trump and somewhat to the left of Obama, but nowhere near what some progressives would like to see.

As was noted in this space, Senate Democrats made their pre-election pitch to shape the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the 2020s, trying to unite a melange of different perspectives. In listening to the presentation made by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), I thought I heard elements of the "restorationist" narrative, of returning to a pre-2016 bipartisan consensus, and both Menendez's remarks and the overall tenor of the report reject any hint of transactionalism as a guiding precept in foreign policy, especially with illiberal or authoritarian regimes. At the same time, Menendez also sounded themes that connect to the "reindustrialization/regeneration" narrative—that America is better positioned to lead abroad if it starts by rebuilding capacities at home, and the "democratic community" narrative—of again prioritizing democracy and human rights and being able to work with allies and close partners to share technologies and focus on improvements. Both of these also implicitly speak to the need to connect foreign policy to "doorstep" concerns, especially economic ones, of voters.

It should also be noted that Toosi as well notes the emphasis in the Biden/Harris platform on those types of concerns.

But narratives gain traction as a result of actual individuals being elected and those individuals who are elected feeling responsive to the concerns expressed by their voters and supporters. This is why Josh Rogin's reporting of what might happen in the event Joe Biden is president but the Senate remains in Republican hands is so important. This suggests that what might emerge would in fact be a largely restorationist approach, a "last chance to return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed." The end result would be one in which newer narratives, particularly about human rights and the environment, might receive less attention.

Which brings us to the current episode of The Doorstep with Tom Nichols, taking a first look at the results of the elections. Narratives matter when people win elections and when those who win elections believe that something matters to their core supporters. So far, the 2020 elections have demonstrated the limits in the electoral reach of those who would want to put forward newer narratives.

This is a story which is still in flux, as votes continue to be counted, but something to keep tabs on as we move forward.

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