Trouble – when the story matters more than reality

By Ande Jacobson

In theater or in literature, an author’s vivid imagination can be a wondrous thing. A writer can spin a captivating tale limited only by the bounds of their imagination and their ability to capture their vision in words. If told well, such a story can be divorced from reality yet still provide compelling entertainment for its audience. In this context it’s not only acceptable, it’s desirable, and viewers or readers can find escape through immersion in such a story. It can be enjoyable to suspend disbelief enough to imagine what might be, and it can even inspire people to positive action to improve a situation in reality. Science fiction has long posited potential advances, both good and bad, that are sometimes achieved at a later time. The communicators used in Star Trek in the 1960s were intriguing. They allowed people to communicate over long distances from wherever they were with a tiny device seemingly by magic. Decades later, they came to life in the real world as flip phones as a phase in the evolution of mobile technology. Granted, there were significant differences in range, clarity, and required infrastructure, but the similarities were striking given various designs inspired by the fictional story. Since then, mobile technology has advanced in the form of smart phones and devices, delighting consumers and titillating the minds of creative engineers to continue to push even further.

Storytelling is not only used for entertainment. It is an age-old means for conveying information. A good story tends to be memorable in some way. As such, storytelling is a valuable means of teaching pretty much any subject. Storytelling can also be used in less laudable ways to manipulate people. When the goal is to manipulate a situation for personal or organizational gain and in the process or by intent harms others; however, leaving reality behind can also be catastrophic.

The U.S. is facing the most important election in its history in 2020. Throughout his candidacy and term, the current president and his party have used a fictional narrative, i.e. fictional stories, to demonize their opponents and have abused the system to the point where democracy is no longer recognizable in their actions. This is no longer about policy. This is about power for a few at the expense of everyone else, otherwise known as a coup. This is not democracy. It is also not political spin or dirty politics as usual. When a president steadfastly works to undermine the legitimacy of his own government and election process, these are the actions of a dictator, not a democratic leader. The final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, written by a committee led by members of the president’s own party, is the most damning in condemning his actions to date in allowing foreign interference to drive the policies of his administration, including detailing foreign elements in play in his first election.

Election day will also mark another important point in American history – the one year anniversary of Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From an American. On 3 November 2019, she posted her first letter announcing her coming series. The first actual letter came two days later on 5 November 2019, but the notice of this series read thusly:

American history and politics

Welcome to Letters from an American by me, Heather Cox Richardson. I’m a history professor interested [in] the contrast between image and reality in American politics. I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures.

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She had been writing posts on her professional Facebook page more sporadically before this and increased the frequency in September 2019 in response to questions she received about the Ukrainian whistleblower story that was making headlines at the time and eventually spawned the impeachment of the current president. On 5 November 2019, she began her more formalized letters maintaining an almost daily regimen of detailing the day’s events. In her writings, she cited verifiable news sources and added vibrant lessons which put the events into historical perspective. These letters appeared on her website and on her professional Facebook page as a means to help educate the public about what was going on.

As an educator and historian, Prof. Richardson tells compelling, true stories, using historically verifiable facts and documentation to illustrate her points. She has been fact checking along the way in her letters, pointing out to her readers where political narrative has been divorced from reality instead serving personal interests over those of the nation. She has often stated how unusual the situations we are currently experiencing are. Her letter from 23 September 2020 documents a watershed moment in American history when for the first time ever, an American president formally announced that he will not respect the outcome of an election should he lose. More than that, his administration and campaign are taking unprecedented steps to delegitimize the election along the way, increasing voter suppression, and working hard to disqualify lawful ballots submitted by mail or drop box around the country, but especially in battleground states.

Prof. Richardson is very clear that this election is not about policy. It’s about the future of democracy in the U.S. In both her letters and her live sessions, she has been very clear that in order for a democracy to survive, if parties are in play, a minimum of two parties are needed to provide policy alternatives. Although there’s nothing that says that there cannot be more than two parties in a healthy democratic nation, she’s very clear that for much of the modern era, ours has devolved into a two-party system. Since the 1980s, one party (the GOP) has been taken over by ideologues striving for a strict oligarchy, not conservatism. Although oligarchic tendencies have arisen at various times throughout U.S. history, they’ve never been as dangerous as they are now to the overall future of democracy in this nation. Even when things looked somewhat bleak in the past, the checks and balances have worked eventually. She cautions that a democracy cannot survive if there is only one party because there’s no alternative policy potential that way. Authoritarian regimes are built by eliminating all alternatives.

Although her daily letters have told the story as it has unfolded of a country in crisis, the 23 September 2020 letter is a little different. It is both disturbing in its content and encouraging in pointing out that there is steadily decreasing support for this attempted ideological coup. She notes that as a nation, we’ve weathered crises before and survived, but she also warns that the future is not written. It is up to us, all of us who are eligible to vote. The United States of America is a unique country as President Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address because we have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is not something to throw away, but it requires hard work on the part of the people to maintain the ultimate oversight on our government by being active participants in the process. In short, everyone who is eligible to vote needs to vote in this election. The future of our democracy depends on us all.

Photo Credit: Ande Jacobson, U.S. Capitol, March 1995

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man; written by Mary L. Trump Ph.D.; published by Simon & Schuster, 14 July 2020
How the South Won the Civil War; written by Heather Cox Richardson; published by Oxford University Press, 1 April 2020
How the South Won the Civil War unmasks the American Paradox
Rage; written by Bob Woodward; published by Simon & Schuster, 15 September 2020
Eclipsing Reality
Free Speech is a precious gift – use it wisely
The Social Dilemma
The Election That Could Break America, The Atlantic
Heather Cox Richardson – Wikipedia
Senate Intelligence Committee Report, Vol. 5

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