Vision and Narrative
A funny thing happens whenever an election is looming (which in Canada is generally every 3–4 years and in the US is always). Politicians who have previously spent their time bickering, scheming, and occasionally getting things done, get to return to their natural habitat. During this time, politicians small and large fan out across the country to preach their individual “vision”.
Vision of course, is simply a code word for narrative. Unlike narrative however, vision is a disingenuous term, as it implies that politicians actually have the ability to enact the changes they imagine. The truth is our political leaders, especially the ones at the top, are far more helpless than any of us like to admit.
Make no mistake, politicians are able to make policies, and these policies have real consequences for people. But when a politician makes a statement so grand as “we are going to fix the economy”, I can’t help but have a chuckle and proceed to repeatedly slam my head against the wall in exasperation. One of my economics professors once described modern economics as being in the same state as medicine was centuries ago, when doctors would bleed people to get rid of bad humours. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as truthful as this statement in an economics class before or since. Even when disregarding the numerous political hurdles that exist, the idea that politicians would know what to do to fix an economy is laughable.
But I digress.
We as the public love a politician with “vision”. Firstly, it frees us from feeling like we have to read up on the intricacies of tax reform or urban infrastructure, secondly, it makes the unknowable suddenly understandable for us. It gives us a feeling of our place in our country, and our country’s place in the world.
Barack Obama was a politician who understood “vision”. Obama gave us a glimpse of a country harmoniously working together, undoing past ills, and achieving what it collectively desired. Did it come to fruition? Of course not, it was very much out of tune with reality (but nevertheless worth striving for). In my opinion this failure is not due to any lacking of intelligence or leadership in Obama, but rather that such an idea was naive in the first place, ignoring the truth about underlying structures and divisions in America. But, that was the point. It was an incredible narrative.
It was an incredible vision.
For any politician, vision is central to how we view their leadership. The vision has to be ambitious enough to make us feel like we can gain something substantial, but realistic enough that we won’t realize it for the fiction it is. The question that ultimately defines success or failure for a politician however, is whether their narrative can resonate broadly enough to win an election. Creating a vision is easy, creating a vision that will be adopted by a nation is exponentially more difficult.