Conventional Wisdom

I sit here in my living room, watching the First Lady of our country address the assembled Republicans, and I begin to wonder. To be fair, I began wondering last week, while watching the Democratic National Convention. I wondered when Michelle Obama spoke. I wondered when Hilary did the same. Biden, Bill, even Barack Obama—they all made me wonder if any of this really makes a difference. And—if it does—then why?
Better articulated: My parents are watching (did watch) the convention(s) on CNN. They are … kinda liberal, though living in Texas, or perhaps simply their aging worldviews, have lent their political affiliations a certain conservative tang. They watch CNN because it comes in HD.

Regardless, I watch it with them and on the television Wolf Blitzer (beard blazing) and Anderson Cooper and everyone else in the biz are explaining to me what the Republicans have to do tonight. They told me what the Democrats had to do, too. The Republicans just have to establish the tone of their convention. They just have to respect George W. while politely distancing McCain from his administration. They just have to keep the enthusiasm for Sarah Palin going. They just have to.

The way they do this is by speaking. The Democrats and the Republicans gather their best speech writers and their best speech speakers and they start telling stories, weaving a Grand American Narrative. Declarative sentences charge forth. Tropes march in strict formation. Standing ovations abound. Each convention tells its own story about the America that came before us, the America that we have today, the America we need tomorrow. At the end, everyone claps and cheers and hugs. Then CNN tells us how they did. Then the other side responds.

I wonder how any of this can matter as much as Wolf and Anderson say it does. How can either of the political parties accomplish anything when all they are doing is telling a story? Make no mistake: neither story is true. Both are simply idyllic visions of a Democratic or Republican Utopia. I wonder … I wonder how so much talk can make any difference.

But that’s not the really amazing thing. The really amazing thing is that these stories do make a difference. They really do. They change people’s minds and they rile people up and they keep the Grand American Political Machine chugging right along. Ask yourself, though—when all of this is over—what really changed? Did it really acquaint you with what any of these politicians are actually like, what they actually believe, how they’ll actually act (how they have acted) in office? Or did it just give you a better story to tell?

Granted, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I, myself, am affected by these stories. My fingers tingle and my heart goes aflutter when one of these speakers starts a rhetorical tumbling routine and then sticks the landing. I do, after all, respect a well-written story. But to put so much stock in it all … to rest your vote, your political philosophy, your country’s future … on a few well-told stories … it kinda makes you wonder….

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