by Heidi Burgess for Solon Simmons
June 27, 2022
This article applies an approach to understanding narratives and their impact on events that Solon developed called "Root Narrative Theory." This approach argues that deep-rooted conflicts which lead to distrust, hate, polarization, and violence are driven by rival root narratives about the abuse of power. Most everyone, he suggests, holds such root narratives. They tend to focus on some combination of four sources of power: military, political, economic, and cultural. All people, he says, identify some people or organizations as protagonists (we would say "good guys") and others as antagonists (we would say "bad guys" or "the other"). They then tend to see the antagonists as abusing one or more of those sources of power resulting in injustice suffered by the protagonists. This results in very different descriptions of problems -- depending on who you define as the protagonist and the antagonist. It also results in very different notions of how to remedy the problem.
For example, addressing the widely recognized problem of "alternative facts," he observes that
Two people can witness the same event, see the same ‘fact’and tell very different kinds of stories about it. On close inspection, research demonstrates that they do so by relying on different root narratives, which identify different antagonists, different abuses, different injustices, and different protagonists. Their stories identify the political realities of abuse of power and the need to check it, which can be arranged into the root narrative structure. (Part 1, page 8)
These stories are illustrated in the following chart, which lists his twelve "root narratives" in the left hand column and shows, to the right, different antagonists, what kind of power they are supposedly abusing, the protagonists, and what kind of injustice they are faced with as a result.
For instance, Solon's "defense narrative" asserts that foreigners (the antagonist) use armed violence (abuse of military power) to create physical deprivation (injustice) in the state (the protagonist). A closely related narrative, which he calls the "nation" narrative asserts that foreingers use armed violence to create unfair competition (a different injustice) for the people (different protagonist).
Solon then applies this root narrative approach to the Republican Party, tracing how that party's narratives have changed over the last 100 years. While some aspects of the Republican narrative have stayed largely the same—for instance they have always put a high value on security—interest in other values, such as liberty and equality have waxed and waned. The current prevailing narrative (he said in 2019, but it has only intensified now) is much more dark, destructive and dangerous than the more positive and constructive narratives which were promulgated by earlier Republican leaders. He proposes strategies for "Republican party renewal" that would be based on transforming the current destructive narratives back into the more constructive narratives of Reagan, the two Bushes, Eisenhower, even Harding.
For instance, he suggests going back to a focus on American exceptionalism and greatness (narratives, of course, that Democrats disdain), would likely be well received and would help paint a positive picture of America for us to try to live up to, rather than focusing on the threats of antagonists that are driving us further toward hatred of the other and isolationism.
...the business of conflict resolution is to find new ways to get parties to understand one another and to come to agreement. This type of story is an indelible part of the American scene and someone will tell it no matter how bitterly it is attacked and no matter how appealingly alternative stories are promoted. Tomorrow’s Republican Party will tell stories of American Exceptionalism and American pride. The only question is, will they be apocalyptic attacks on others as we have recently seen or attempts to shore up a sense of destiny as was typical of the history of the parties most successful partisans.
The promise of Root Narrative Theory, Solon explains,
is not just to promote better analyses of political worldviews, but also to provide practitioners with better points of entry for intellectual transformation. The idea is that if you can meet people in their own political reality, you have a better chance of negotiating with them and finding paths to more productive cooperation.
Why would the Dems want to negotiate with them or find paths to more productive cooperation? We (Heidi and Guy Burgess) would say because that is the only way to save our democracy. The Dems cannot (and morally should not) completely overpower the Republicans, figuratively forcing them into the sea. We have to find a way to work with them. Solon agrees:
Clearly, something must be done to help the Republican Party to climb out of the abyss it has fallen.Keep in mind that these recommendations can be made from a place of rivalry or even contempt. Even if you hate the Republican Party and all it stands for, unless you believe that it is positioned to fall from power utterly, to be cast from the halls of history to exist as nothing but a memory, you have an interest in helping the party back to a better version of itself.
Solon has several more suggestions for ways to encourage such transformation in the paper, and he discusses this much more on the book that explores this approach in great more detail: