There is a lot of talk in Washington these days about the “narrative.” The word pops up frequently in headlines as pundits and pols talk about how President Obama has regained (or lost) control of the narrative on, say, healthcare. Or maybe it’s Capitol Hill Democrats and financial regulatory reform. Or the economy. Or Supreme Court nominees.
If you’ve been reading or hearing the word with increasingly regularity, it’s for good reason. According to a new media study, “the narrative” has become the most used political buzzword in the run up to the 2010 elections.
The survey was conducted by the Global Language Monitor, a small firm from Austin, Texas. Since 2003 the group has monitored news sources from around the world and charted how frequently words or phrases appear. It has developed a Predictive Quantities Indicator, or PQI, for commonly used words to determine which terms are the most popular. Every six months, the group publishes its findings. Terms like “chad,” “swift boating” and “change” have topped the firm’s previous reports.
What is striking about “the narrative” is that unlike previous chart toppers it is now being used to describe policy—not just politics. Paul Payack, the firm’s president, says he has been amazed by how the term cropped up during the healthcare reform process, effectively obscuring any substantive debate.
“The narrative had become such a captivating word right now,” he says, “It doesn’t matter what the actual policies are, it’s whether they fit a narrative or not.”
A few examples: On February 15, The Financial Times wrote that just a month into his administration “Barack Obama … has lost control of the political narrative.” On, March 6, The New York Times noted that “the Obama White House has lost the narrative in a way that the Obama campaign never did.” On March 26, the Huffington Post headlined a story: “The Start of a New Obama Narrative.”
The term’s use is an example of campaign lingo and strategy spilling over into governing. Campaigns have long focused on developing a compelling narrative then fitting issues into it. Now it appears that the story of whether a bill will pass gets more attention than what is in the bill.
That may have something to do with how the media covers policy debates, says Phil Molfese, a Democratic strategist. “The media is getting away from the details of laws and focusing more on the overriding theme or story and simplifying it. They are more and more focused on story lines as opposed to facts.”
The ever-growing size of the media may also explain the rise of the word, according to Payack. With the myriad of news outlets, it has become more effective to deliver sound bites that drive a story line rather than policy details. And to public figures, it makes more sense politically to declare victory than risk losing the news cycle by discussing some esoteric detail of a bill. “It seems like things are more and more in terms of a zero sum game,” says Payack. “You either win or you lose.”
Some say the term is actually the renaming of older political jargon. Republican consultant Phil Smith says the term is a creation of the media and appears to be used most often to describe President Obama and his administration. “It seems,” Smith says, “that the media prefers this term to describe Obama because it is softer than ‘rhetoric,’ which is what it used to be called.” Payack, however, charts the origin of the term—or at least the idea behind the term—to President Bill Clinton. Clinton, he reasons, was the first to run a professional campaign from inside the White House.
“He was continually in campaign mode,” Payack says, “and it worked for him.”
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics magazine.