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The Science of America's Dueling Political Narratives – Scientific American

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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, so that policies can have predictable outcomes. The party in office typically offers more progress, or preserving a Triumph its administration achieved; the other promises a course correction back toward its own goals.

Compared with the usual metanarratives, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was much more dynamic. First, he introduced a restoration story line, a promise to “Make America Great Again.” This story line contrasts an idealized past and potential future with a fallen present, creating more dramatic emotional contrasts than a course correction. But Trump didn’t stop there. “Drain the Swamp” and even “Lock Her Up!” were examples of transformation—an abrupt end to “business as usual.” His infrastructure expansion plans were classic Progress, and his nomination by the conservative GOP promised the stability valued by party faithful. Voters could latch onto whichever vision most resonated with them, ignoring the others. The drama in Trump’s metanarratives excited new segments of the public and helps explain his appeal, both to Republicans and others (like 12 percent of previous Bernie Sanders voters). As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, it’s emotion that wins elections.

If we like, we can picture Trump as an amateur scientist, conducting a rudimentary experiment to see if new metanarratives would inspire the public. Meanwhile, the Democrats tried an informal experiment of their own, weighing the motivational power of the usual progress/stability versus a Sanders “revolution” to sharply reorient government priorities. They concluded the temporary loss of stability from a transformation would cause too much collective anxiety, and went with Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden.

Biden’s early metanarrative choices had been vaguely along the expected course correction line, but by the Democratic National Convention he’d settled on a much stronger genre, the crossroads. Both his slogan, “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” and his references to “inflection points” portray America as at a critical juncture. In narrative terms, this story line sets up suspense between two possible outcomes—as Biden put it, “shadow and suspicion” versus “hope and light”—a suspense that makes our votes meaningful, as we each participate in its resolution.

Trump’s reelection slogan, “Keep America Great,” is a triumph story line that logically follows a restoration, yielding pride and self-satisfaction, but anxiety if the achievement is vulnerable. His RNC speech also featured progress (such as “new frontiers of ambition and discovery”), a course correction (including “returning to full employment” and “rekindle new faith in our values”), and his own version of a crossroads: either “save the American Dream” or “allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”

Trump’s kitchen-sink approach to conveying a vision for the country means we can’t compare the effectiveness of one metanarrative against another. Such real-world experiments are impractical. However, we can still explore the factors influencing our reactions to different story lines.

The public doesn’t accept every metanarrative it’s offered. We tend to be loyal to the cultural beliefs favored by our social circles and encouraged by our leaders. Even then, some voters stay open to alternatives, if there’s enough dissonance between the party line and their own experiences.

A useful analogy again comes from narrative science. Psychologist Keith Oatley has described three ways to read a book: deeply immersed, such that its emotional world becomes our own; reflectively exploring its ideas by making our own connections and thinking critically; or staying emotionally detached. Similarly, we can treat the metanarratives in our lives as truths we shouldn’t question, potentially valid perspectives we can weigh and choose among, or just plain wrong. Trump favors a “full immersion” approach, with his affinity for sensory-rich rallies and his insistence on personal loyalty. Biden’s give-and-take style aligns more with critical thinking. Which is not to say that there aren’t reflective Republicans or unquestioning Democrats; of course there are.

My personal, untestable hypothesis is that the election’s bottom line will be emotional. As they weigh the personalities, policies, and metanarrative visions offered by the candidates, voters may choose the one who best offers an end to 2020’s turmoil. The newfound appeal of stability could be the deciding factor. And as formal science works to catch up with the intuitive “science” practiced by politicians, we may learn to better understand the functioning of metanarratives in action.

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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – The Battlefords News-Optimist

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OTTAWA — Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

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“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.

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Vote to review Liberals response to COVID-19 highlights showdown between politics and science – National Post

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Article content continued

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

And nothing could be further from the truth

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

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Students learn provincial politics in mock vote at Saskatchewan schools – Global News

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They are too young to vote in Monday’s provincial election, but Saskatchewan elementary and high school students have learned how to cast a ballot when the time comes.

A total of 420 schools across all 61 provincial ridings took part in Student Vote Saskatchewan 2020 ahead of election day on Oct. 26.

Non-partisan Canadian charity, CIVIX, provides teachers with the necessary materials for its civic education program, which has been running since 2003.

“The purpose of our project is to get engaged now, so that when they turn 18, we hope that they not only vote then, but that they will always vote,” said Dan Allan, CIVIX director of content.

Read more:
Ridings to watch in the 2020 Saskatchewan election

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Grade 12 student Brenna Metz said before the program, her class did not know much about who was running for election in their local riding.

“Realizing we need to be informed when making these decisions because they are really big decisions about our lives,” Metz said, adding her biggest takeaway was learning how the provincial government relates to important issues.

“I know mental health was a huge thing that we discussed in our classes because it definitely affects everyone in the school and for many students it is a large problem in Saskatchewan.”

After learning the ins and outs of provincial politics, students from as early as Grade 4 cast mock ballots on Oct. 22 and Oct. 23.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were offered the option of online voting. CIVIX noted, however, the majority still chose to use paper ballots with added precautions.

Teacher Lyle Morley said classes at Dr. Martin LeBoldus High School in Regina voted at their desks using paper ballots sealed in envelopes — akin to mail-in ballots.

Read more:
Next Saskatchewan government will have to juggle budget, pandemic economy

“In past years we’d have them bring ID and go to the library and vote like you would usually vote,” Morley said, adding students are looking forward to seeing the provincewide results.

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“They want to know what the schools did and they’re definitely interested to see who won,” he said.

CIVIX will release the final student vote results, broken down by riding and school, on election night Monday at 8 p.m. CT.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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