STRESS TEST FOR DEMOCRACY: Part 3 of 3: The Importance of the Narrative

© 2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

The 4th of July seems like a good time to write about democracy. In this series of three blogs, I am trying to analyze how a democracy could be replaced by an authoritarian government (so we can understand and avoid this). This last blog focuses on the power of the narrative: the story of a country’s values and behavioral expectations, and how the nation is doing. This national narrative is promoted primarily by cultural and political leaders, via the media that reinforces it on a daily basis. If an authoritarian personality was to hijack a democracy, there would have to be a wide-spread narrative in support of authoritarian rule and a population conditioned to accept it.

Historically, it seems that this has occurred when a population has experienced (or is told it has experienced) so much chaos, loss, unfairness and danger associated with the democracy, that it is necessary to impose a dictatorship—a “strong man” rule. This authoritarian ruler would make the rules and mete out justice as he believed appropriate, because this would be “so much better than” the chaos, loss, unfairness and danger they were facing. He would eliminate or control the representatives in the legislature and take control of the media.

Since I just got back from Europe, including quick visits to Russia and Germany on a Viking Cruise, let’s look at their examples. Germany, in the 1920’s, had a representative democracy after World War I. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor because his Nazi party had received the most votes in the most recent election, primarily because the people were disgruntled by the financial impact of the Great Depression on top of paying war reparations, and insufficient action from their representative government. However, the typical Nazi at that time was still employed, generally rural and not particularly anti-Semitic, but angry with the polarized parliament in Berlin.

Then, a month later in February 1933, a Dutch communist started a fire in the Reichstag building of the German parliament. While our tour guide in Berlin said that this wasn’t actually a very large fire and not a serious threat to the building (it’s still standing even now), Hitler used this “communist threat” as the basis to turn Germany into a dictatorship. He “banned opposition publications and rallies” and “On March 23, he had the Reichstag approve the ‘enabling act,’ effectively shifting all key powers from the legislative body to him.” (Nagorski, A. Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.)

Russia has an ambivalent history regarding democracy. From about 1905 to 1924, there were two revolutions and a civil war, with periods of representative government. Then, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) was established in 1924 and Josef Stalin ruled with an iron hand until the 1950’s.  In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and there were elections for President (Boris Yeltsin) and the Duma (Parliament). Then, in 2000, Vladimir Putin became President. As President and Prime Minister ever since, he has established himself as an authoritarian ruler. He has cracked down on the press and eliminated any serious opposition parties and candidates (reportedly with some occasional poisonings). Gays are persecuted and demonstrators are arrested. What has allowed this to occur? His narrative has emphasized the “chaos” of the 1990’s, and the “dangers” of western democracies (the United States and Western Europe). It appears that Russians in general like Putin’s approach because he has protected them from chaos and the evil western world, as promoted endlessly and without opposition in the state-favored media.

In the United States, Trump’s narratives have dominated for the past two years. His face and voice are everywhere, and his insulting tweets grab our right brain’s attention in a way that print messages do not. (It’s not Trump’s tweets that have much power; it’s the radio and TV repetition of those tweets that make them dominate the news and give them credibility.) All of this seems charming and funny. Yet what is going on during these distractions? They are shutting down our logical thinking, as the face and voice news (TV and radio) is primarily emotional. People are believing things that have little basis in reality, based on repetitive reporting of fear and anger.

Authoritarianism explains why Trump’s message is such a dark narrative. He spoke of American “carnage” at his inauguration. From the first day he ran for office, up to the present, Trump speaks of “Us against Them”: “Mexican rapists and murderers;” a ban on travelers from primarily Muslim countries; and he still reinforces the crowd when they chant “Lock her up” about his former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton. From 2011 to 2016, he stoked resentment for an African-American President with a narrative that he wasn’t born in the U.S., so that by August 2016, 40% of Republicans believed this, according to the well-respected fact-checking organization He has railed against Obamacare, as a “disaster” that will collapse under its own weight. Yet he provides no useful information in his narrative. But it is still a very powerful emotional narrative.

For example, Obama was riding high during his honeymoon period as President in the summer of 2009. The Affordable Care Act was being developed in the normal legislative process, with open debates and various plans being considered. Then, suddenly, congressmen and women were confronted by angry citizens in their home districts at town hall meetings during the August 2009 break. What specifically were they intensely angry about? It was hard to tell, but their intensity was broadcast on the news far and wide—starting with Fox News. As Gabriel Sherman said in his book The Loudest Voice in the Room about Roger Ailes’ selective news in 2009:

Now Obama advisers were getting word that Fox was actively manipulating the coverage of the health care debate, which at the time was being played out in a national series of town halls. “We had anecdotal reports that where there was no screaming, they would not report it.” …

What most alarmed the White House was that the rest of the media was suddenly following Fox News’s lead. In an interview posted on the New York Times website, the paper’s managing editor, Jill Abramson, acknowledged that they would need to follow Fox’s reporting in the future. “The narrative was being hijacked by Fox,” Dunn said. “Fox had taken over a thought-leader role in the national press corps.”

This manipulation of the national narrative was shocking to read. I always wondered why people hated Obamacare, rather than simply disliking it as one policy over another. After all, how could healthcare be such a negative emotional issue? Yet I know from my work with high-conflict personalities that emotions are contagious, and high-conflict emotions are highly contagious. And the news media amplified this angry narrative.

Then, I recently started reading Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, and was surprised to read the following about the billionaire Koch brothers’ financial influence on our political process:

Koch operatives also purposefully sabotaged the democratic process by planting screaming protesters in town hall meetings at which congressmen met with constituents that year.

So not only was the face and voice press selecting emotions in their reporting, but the emotions they selected were secretly paid for. This manipulated narrative was so purely emotional, that it drove congress to attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act over 60 times, without success, before Trump was elected. Yet, now that the facts and true importance of this Act are being discussed in the news, the reality is that the majority of the country now supports Obamacare. Ironically, the Republican House and Senate has been unable to come up with a wonderful alternative, because none exists. Apparently, less than 20 percent of the country supports the bills that have been put forth as Trumpcare (American Health Care Act). Yet it still may pass, primarily for emotional reasons.

What does all this mean for democracy? To me, it means the urgent need for education of the general public about the power of the narrative. That emotional narratives can’t be trusted and must be examined logically. That there are wealthy people willing to pay protesters to promote their own selfish narrative. And, scariest of all, that an exaggerated or false event—a modern “Reichstag fire”—could trigger steps to severely reduce or eliminate our democracy. And it’s not just Trump. It’s the combination of a high-conflict leader, dark money and the emotional media that could drive a narrative against our democracy. Don Saposnek and I wrote about this in 2012 in our book Splitting America.

What can we do? Education is always my first choice. I see my role as helping to explain what may be happening in high-conflict situations. Learning about the reality of the issues and expressing one’s own opinion about them is what democracy allows—we can’t afford to hold back. And, while we can, voting in all elections for which we’re eligible. Lastly, we need to recognize the power of an extreme high-conflict personality to control the national and world narrative, and to not get hooked ourselves.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books  and methods  for handling high conflict personalities  and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.