It is obvious that we live in a time of extraordinary polarization, and we are in the midst of an election that is bringing that schism into even starker contrast. Red and blue Americans differ in our demographics, our education, our policy commitments, and where we live. But perhaps we differ the most in the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we live by. An article that appeared last week in Scientific American examines these broad stories, or “meta-narratives,” as a key to understanding two increasingly incompatible worldviews. Written by Dr. Laura Akers, a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute, the article focuses on the meta- narrative, or literally a “story of stories,” as kind of a master template that determines our overall sense of who we are and where we should be headed.
The subtitle for the article is, “Elections aren’t won on the basis of policies; they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values.” The first thought that occurred to me is that, in parallel fashion, “trials aren’t won on the basis of evidence, they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values.” Maybe that is too absolute, since jurors do at least want to base decisions on evidence. But the filter for what pieces of evidence are noticed, understood, found credible, remembered, and used will be a filter that is built out of those stories and values. For that reason, it is worth being a student of the current moment by genuinely trying to understand the meta-narratives that each side is clinging to. After all, we don’t reserve those stories for politics alone, we also bring them into the courtroom.
The Trump/Conservative Meta-narrative:
The master template for the current stories that guide the President’s supporters is one of revolution by an anointed outsider. According to their narrative, the country has been in a fallen state, needs to be made “great again,” and the only one who can do it is someone outside of the current corrupt political system. The more Trump continues to reject every conventional political norm, the more he proves that he is that outsider. As a transgressive change agent, he is attacking illegal immigration, government waste, over-regulation, and socialism, while recasting the international roles that have taken advantage of American generosity. That narrative has made the Trump supporters largely immune to criticism, because breaking the rules is what they expect him to do, and criticism, even when it comes from other conservatives, just shows that he is shaking the roots of the establishment, and they like that.
The Biden/Liberal Meta-narrative:
The overarching story that guides Biden’s supporters, on the other hand, seems to be one of restoration through a political leader with a long tenure and a basic trust. The idea of bringing decency and normalcy back to government is behind the campaign’s theme of a “Battle for the Soul of the Nation.” According to this narrative, America is at a crossroads on virtually every issue: race, the environment, economic security, America’s role in the world, independence from foreign powers, freedom, and civil liberties — and the course we take will determine whether hope is still alive after November 3rd. That narrative has been highly motivating for those on the left, and moderates as well, gaining support for a candidate who might not otherwise garner high excitement.
Meta-narratives in the Jury Box:
The ripples of these meta-narratives are not just contained in the pool of politics. Instead, they influence attitudes across the spectrum. For example, based on the liberal meta-narrative, civil trials are tools to fight for justice, to hold large and powerful entities accountable, and to equalize resources. Based on the conservative meta narrative, however, lawsuits are corrupt and burdensome efforts to escape personal responsibility and to enrich trial lawyers. Cases that involve regulations, large entities, personal responsibility, and civil rights are likely to resonate strongly with one or the other meta-narrative. That is why it is important to not only check on a potential juror’s political leanings, something that is increasingly easy to do based on the ubiquity of public social media, but to also spend some time talking individually with your juror candidates, where that is possible, in order to gain an understanding of just how deep into the meta-narrative they might be. One important factor is that, because those who are following the President’s narratives are less likely to consider the coronavirus pandemic to be a big deal, they are also more likely to show up for in-person jury duty.
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