The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

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Whatever else one might say about the Trump era in American politics, it’s provided a wealth of data for scientists studying public opinion. For those of us interested in “metanarratives”—the stories that groups tell themselves about who they are and where they’re headed—the 2016 and 2020 campaigns have been a gold mine.

Every vision of America has a metanarrative at its core. Are we a land of endless opportunity, a beacon for the world’s huddled masses? Are we the world’s lone superpower, throwing its weight around? Every institution, every social movement and every political campaign offers its own answers to questions like these, and for the people who believe these answers, these stories can be vital to their identity.

The science of metanarratives and how we respond to them is still in its infancy. Our research team, headed by psychologist Gerard Saucier, has uncovered the metanarratives typical of terrorists and genocidal leaders worldwide. More broadly, my own work seeks to understand how the structure and features of metanarratives can elicit emotional responses, and how social factors influence public reactions.

Emotions arise when we make comparisons relevant to our own needs and desires. We contrast our present circumstances with the future, the past and alternative versions of today. Improvements make us happy and inspire us; losses sadden or frustrate us. If we can blame someone else for our loss, we may become angry with them. And if we’re faced with threats, our fear can motivate action. As with fiction, we can categorize metanarratives by their emotional “genres,” such as progress (pride, optimism) or looming catastrophe (fear).

The metanarratives in U.S. presidential elections are usually predictable. Each party wants progress, although the Democratic and Republican “flavors” of progress tend to differ. Each party also wants the stability needed for progress to work,