Early next week, two tropical systems are expected to be present in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time. Both are currently projected to strengthen to at least Category 1 hurricanes at some point before making landfall. The current plots have moved a bit from my screengrab above, such that the lovely people of Lafayette and Lake Charles now sit within the official National Hurricane Center forecast cones for both tropical systems.
I won’t insult you by making the obligatory 2020 remark.
Now, as I’ve written before, the tropical weather community is a funny thing. Especially the online tropical weather community. They are practitioners of the most cringeworthy, obvious kind of Kabuki Theater imaginable. Everyone – everyone – performs exaggerated, tortuous expressions of genuine hope that the storms will not harm life or property as preamble to what they really feel. And what they really feel is an unquenchable desire for something magnificent and historically destructive to take place. It is the natural reaction when you love storms, want to see a monster storm and don’t know anybody down in Beaumont anyway…but still feel a little bit ashamed about it.
Sansa Stark: They respect you, they really do, but you have to… Why are you laughing?
Jon Snow: What did father used to say? Everything before the word “but” is horse shit.Game of Thrones, Season 7 Episode 1: “Dragonstone”
Still, when you’ve got two almost overlapping tropical systems abrewin’, it’s hard to keep the disaster-porn aficionados from wishcasting a superstorm on the central gulf coast. And so there are two kinds of stories you’ll see this weekend. The first will be stories that try to suck you in with dramatic descriptions of the two hurricanes combining into a single frankenhurricane. The second will be stories that highlight how interesting it is to have the storms in such proximity, describe that yes, they will influence each other’s path and growth, and reinforce that they will probably have the net effect of impeding their respective development. At a very minimum, that they make predictions about what both will do somewhat more difficult.
The effect describing the fascinating mutual interactions of complex cyclonic weather systems is called the Fujiwhara Effect, and you’ll be hearing a lot about it over the next week or so.
And then probably never again.
In narrative world, we have got two complex systems on a similar collision course. They are already interacting, already creating new common knowledge and already trying to shape our language. They both reflect the best efforts of missionaries to guide how we are thinking about both issues. And unlike Marco and Laura, by all appearances they are combining into a single storm. The real Fujiwhara Effect of 2020 sits at the intersection of the narratives of COVID-19 and the 2020 US Presidential Election.
So how influential are the narratives of COVID-19 on the US Presidential elections right now?
Using the updated methodology from our ET Professional narrative monitors, we examined the relative influence of various topics on the language used so far in the month of August to discuss US elections. The narrative strength measure is our composite of the (1) volume of and (2) similarity of language used by media outlets, blogs and press releases to discuss those topics in context of elections. The scores are normalized against our typical expectations for an election topic’s narrative strength. A score of 1 means we think that topic exerts influence that is higher than only 10% of comparable topics. A score of 10 means the topic exerts influence that is higher than just about any we have observed.
While economy narratives are important to this election, they are nearly always important. While narratives about the likely right to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice are important, they are nearly always important. Race and identity play more of a role as electoral issues than they have in the past, as does wealth inequality. As we’ve noted previously, both of those were dominant topics for the DNC primary process. But at least in narrative space, 2020 is now a COVID election.
You probably have a picture in your head of what that means. That picture probably isn’t complete.
To some Americans, the dominant COVID narrative is that the government utterly failed to take the steps that other countries took to reduce the impact of the virus on human lives and the economy alike. To others, the dominant COVID narrative is that opportunists in the government saw a pandemic as the opportunity to push policies and government mandates that they long desired, shutting down entire sectors of the economy without any kind of cost/benefit analysis to doing so.
But here’s the thing: COVID’s relationship to the election in narrative world isn’t about either of those things. Not really. Not any more. It isn’t about the human toll. It isn’t about freedoms taken. It isn’t about unnecessary shutdowns. It isn’t about simple steps that weren’t taken on masks and testing. The perfect storm forming out of the intersection of COVID and US elections is circulating around the narratives of the need for mail-in voting and the risk of widespread fraud.
Yes, of course this topic ranks higher in August because there have been news events worthy of reporting that referenced it. But it is the overwhelming similarity of the language being used that should concern every citizen. Narrative missionaries on both sides are weaponizing this topic. They are all on the same page. They are sticking to the talking points.
The visualization below should give you a picture of just what I mean. It is a network of all COVID-related election news during the month of August, constructed through natural language processing-based analysis that compares the words and phrases of meaning in each article to those in each other article. Each node represents a single article. The bold-faced nodes and connectors relate to articles demanding broad mail-in voting and articles asserting the risk of fraud, delays and errors in such voting. Nodes that are closer together and have more connecting lines are more similar in language. Those that are further apart are less similar. North-south and east-west have no meaning. Distance and concentration are the only dimensions that matter here.
The nodes defined by language associated with the narratives of mail-in voting fraud (in bold) dominate the network and are far more tightly clustered and connected than other clusters and language. What you see here is what we measured above. It is what we mean when we say that everyone with an opinion on this is staying very on-message.
Network Graph of COVID-Related Election News – “Fraud” Language in Bold
When we write about the widening gyre, what we mean is a political environment in which two randomly selected Americans of differing political alignments are increasingly living in two completely different worlds. They see the same events with the same facts and understand them through two separate lenses.
I think this issue has great potential to accelerate that widening process.
We would be far from the first to note the inherent divisiveness of assertions by President Trump that mail-in voting will certainly result in widespread fraud, ballot destruction and delays. Selectively neutering the USPS to prevent its use by the several states to manage their election processes as delegated to them under the law was about as transparently political a use of the office as possible. The implication of fraud at in-person voting has made its appearance again, too, with the chilling indication that police will be present at polling locations to prevent it. Yet two things can be true at once: that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that this has happened in the recent past AND that mass mail-in voting is a whole other beast from anything we’ve tried to-date.
And yet the political left have not ignored every lesson from Donald Trump. They are good at the common knowledge game, too. The time it took for the self-evident need for widespread mail-in voting because of COVID-19 to become common knowledge was immeasurably short, despite in-person voting with accommodations for certain vulnerable populations being perfectly feasible in nearly every region in the US. The narrative that there is no risk of fraud also took root in left-leaning media outlets almost immediately. Nearly identical language popped up almost simultaneously across hundreds of outlets claiming that the risk of fraud, ballot losses and delays has been fact-checked as “false”, despite there being no existing study that matches the potential scale of what is being contemplated in the 2020 election that could justify that kind of statement.
The network graph below zooms in on just those election articles referencing the assertions of mail-in voting fraud. The bold-faced nodes are those referencing those pseudo-authoritative claims of “proof” based on a non-representative historical analog.
Network Graph of Election Fraud News – “Fact Check = False” Language in Bold
Let’s be real about what’s happening here:
Donald Trump is building a bullshit narrative about fraud to keep as many marginally politically involved voters as possible from voting – and to keep open potential avenues to dispute the election on the basis of fraud.
The DNC is building a bullshit narrative about COVID to allow as many marginally politically involved voters as possible to vote – and to keep open potential avenues to dispute the election on the basis of voter suppression.
If you’re typing ‘whataboutism’, you can stop now. I am not comparing the two intents obscured by these narratives. I think one intent is worse than the other. Way, way worse. But you’re smart enough to think for yourself on that point, and don’t need my opinion to make up your mind about how to weigh that along with whatever else you think is important to determine how you will vote.
More importantly, we must realize that even if the underlying aims that gave birth to the narratives are not moral equals, it still matters that we are being manipulated. It still matters that both methods are going to contribute to a more divided America in which each half literally lives in a different reality. Both methods are narrative nuclear options which almost guarantee a disastrous civic and social outcome. If Biden loses, the approaches taken by the two parties ensure that half the country will consider it illegitimate because of voter suppression. If Trump loses, the approaches taken by the two parties ensure that half the country will consider it illegitimate because of fraud.
These are truths told with bad intent, sweeping narratives built on the shaky ground of assertions about the risks of mail-in voting on a scale not yet attempted and the feasibility of in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Citizens who would resist the transformation of the widening gyre into a perfect storm must be capable of holding multiple ideas in our heads at once. We can make judgments about the relative merits of the underlying intents of two political powers with full hearts. AND we can make our judgments about the mutual use of manipulative, divisive narratives with clear eyes.
Neither requires us to forgo the other.