Narratives Surrounding the KS-37 Race and Aaron Coleman
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Somehow, even though I'm from Kansas, I hadn't heard about this until about an hour ago.
To recap the story for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar: 19-year old Aaron Coleman is running for Kansas state legislature in the 37th district. He won a low-turnout primary and was expected to win, given that there was no opposition candidate. Then, a series of accusations surfaced. The most serious charge came from an 18-year old woman who says that five years ago, Coleman blackmailed her with revenge porn. There have been plenty more accusations since, all of them involving abusive behavior toward women. Initially, Coleman withdrew from the race, but he has since re-entered.
I'm not going to comment too much on Coleman or his victims. Other people have done that in much more detail. Suffice it to say that he should have dropped out, and his subsequent behavior has only demonstrated that he is far too immature and unstable to hold any kind of office. I can only hope that one of the writing campaigns against him succeeds.
Rather, I'd like to focus on the reaction from the political press, both before and after the accusations came to light. I've talked a bit about narratives and narrative control here, and this is a great demonstration of how this works in our modern media environment. Specifically, I'd like to look at Glenn Greenwald's response, as he (along with the rest of the gang at the Intercept) seems to have taken on Coleman as some kind of cause.
I'm not going to make any claim to neutrality here. I don't like Glenn Greenwald and I never have, not even a decade-odd ago when he was "the only consistent man in politics" and everyone was kissing his ass. The article is exactly what I expected - lots of "whataboutism" and burying the lede, which is nothing more than I expected from Greenwald.
There's a bigger issue here at play here. Greenwald isn't from Kansas, and neither are most of the people talking about this. These people really have no frame of reference to discuss Kansas state politics, and yet they all have very strong opinions. This is SOP in our current media environment - no one is ever supposed to say "I don't know enough to speak intelligently on that," you're supposed to have an opinion already, even if you only heard about the issue an hour ago.
So how do you have a strong opinion about something you've never thought about? Simple - you slot it into a pre-established narrative. Here's Greenwald's narrative, appearing in the article even before he details the accusations (emphasis added):
Inspired by the populist-left movement and working-class coalition that emerged during the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, Coleman’s worldview is composed of several core beliefs that are virtually nonexistent in Kansas electoral politics: universal health care coverage, raising the minimum wage, state-funded trade schools, a Green New Deal, full reproductive rights for women, and the legalization of cannabis, with new revenue from marijuana sales going to public schools and to create free trade schools. Frownfelter, meanwhile, supports none of that. He joined with the GOP majority to restrict abortion rights and generally supports a corporatist agenda favored by his large-money donors.
Even more extraordinary are the conditions of Coleman’s childhood and life story: ones extremely common in contemporary American life yet, revealingly, vanishingly rare to see among elected political officials. Raised by a father who could not work due to severe mental health disabilities and a mother who is an under-employed teacher, Coleman’s childhood was one of poverty, at times not knowing where his next meal would come from. After dropping out of high school, he enrolled at a local community college in Kansas City to obtain his GED, and now splits his time between community college classes and his job as a part-time, hourly-wage dishwasher.
Here we have our story: Scrappy, progressive-minded working-class hero versus corrupt sellout establishment figure. It's not subtle, but Greenwald has never been known for dealing in nuance.
Underpinning this story is a broader narrative of American politics, one featuring a "corporatist" conspiracy to undermine genuine reforms and the lone heroes resisting it. Greenwald knows nothing about Kansas politics, but he doesn't need to - all he needs to do is figure out who is the progressive hero and who is the corporate villain and his opinion is already formed. No other information is necessary; Any other information that does come in is filtered through that worldview.
I could go on about the article (and Greenwald's clumsy, artless efforts at narrative control), but I'll restrain myself. Instead, I have two points I'd like to make.
We really underestimate how much we're influenced by fiction. The human brain is excellent at capturing stories and extracting information from them, but it doesn't automatically distinguish between that which we consciously know is fictitious and that which we believe is the truth. In other words, we're prone to seeing fiction and reality as equal sources of understanding.
A legislature is a deliberative body. The Kansas legislature consists of 125 representatives and 40 senators, both of which are generally controlled by Republicans. In any case, though, a deliberative body achieves its ends through consensus. Therefore, a single person is unlikely to achieve anything by himself, and a single person who has opinions contrary to the rest of the body and refuses to compromise will never achieve anything. Insofar as a small group has influence in a deliberative body, it's as a persuadable swing bloc.
Given that Coleman is unlikely to achieve anything of note, why were people so excited? Frankly, most "political junkies" are pretty ignorant about politics. They tend to get their news from low-quality sources that shy away from boring, complex policy discussions and toward more incendiary fare - which is what their audiences want. "Political junkies" want theater, they want a night at the opera, or maybe a professional wrestling match - something with a face to root for and a heel to root against. The same person who can tell you what a state senator from a state they've never been to said on Twitter might not be able to tell you what the U.S. Senate is deliberating about.
So much of this comes from our childhood media diet. The "David vs. Goliath" story is maybe the essential category of American narrative. We're exposed to a constant stream of solitary heroic figures throughout our youths, from television and movies and novels and video games but also from historical accounts that all too often trend toward "Great Man" views. Combine this with our Manichaean storytelling style, and you get a situation where we're all still waiting for the white knight to ride over the horizon and rescue us.
"Political junkies" who live outside of Kansas likely don't understand the character of Kansas politics. Yes, I said this already, and I will keep saying it because it's true, just as it's true of every state.
Here's the basic rundown: Kansas really has three parties. There's the Kansas Democratic Party, which is very weak - generally only holding a quarter to a third of the legislature. The Kansas Republican Party is split into two factions: moderate Republicans, and the kind of hard-right religious conservatives who bark out a prayer every time their eyes land on an unredacted science textbook. Most of the time, the Democrats form a coalition with the moderate Republicans that allows them to keep the right-wing in check.
This is a problem for people like Greenwald, who uplift a sort of political purity. When we talk about "purity" in this context, we usually mean consistency. This is upheld as the greatest of all political virtues, the ones that those dastardly politicians have abandoned. At the extremes, you encounter people who refuse to support anyone whose opinions have varied at all since he or she was fifteen (which perhaps explains the current political obsession with teenagers - they haven't ruined their purity yet by changing their minds).
But that sort of thinking doesn't do us any good in Kansas, where Democrats (let alone "progressives," an increasingly self-indulgent and meaningless term) are a distinct minority. Kansas Democrats get things done by being a swing bloc. Remember that? The thing I was talking about just a few paragraphs ago? If you're a minority, but a large enough minority to block a bill, the way you get things done is by getting concessions from one side or the other. Yes, that means defiling your precious purity by voting for things you might not believe in.
This isn't new. It's how the South lost the war and won the peace - dominating national politics for decades by swinging back and forth, always getting a little something for themselves in the process. I'm sure it happens in a lot of other states as well, but it has been a fixture in Kansas politics for ages. That's how you get things done - not by crossing your arms and insisting on getting 100% of what you want 100% of the time.
This also means that Coleman would be useless as long as he stands on his own purity - and based on what he's said previously, I have to assume that he would. He might actually make the party weaker by reducing its power as a bloc.
That's what reality looks like, and it tends to be distasteful to people who treat politics less as a means of addressing problems and more as a means of bolstering their own egos. If you want purity, friend, then go live in a monastery. Go exercise your good vs. evil narratives in fiction and leave the problem solving to people equipped to do it.