On CNN, I think, the election night coverage was titled ‘America Votes.’ I was watching and a friend next to me said, “No, it doesn’t.”

At face value, the descriptive statement ‘America Votes’ is false. America really doesn’t vote, at least not the majority that can. The sentence’s blatantly counterfactual nature points to another interpretation.

I’d say Wolf Blitzer and Co. had some prescriptive or subjunctive meaning in mind. If they’d slapped ‘[That] America Votes’ onscreen, we could supply our own beginning to the clause: ‘I hope.’ Or we could tack on to the end ‘is a good thing.’ ‘[It ought to be the case that] America Votes’ was in any event the underlying current of the entire program. And the pundits gabbed on for hours, trying to drive that idea home – with the super-sublimated wish statement ‘and that voting might mean something’ permeating the set.

Elections seem a great time for stories – war-time anecdotes and gibes at the sexual orientation of an opponent’s daughter. But the most important yarn is that narrative of the voting process itself. We introduce it every so often and bat it about, boil it down. Change Is in the Air! or Four More Years! The election tales differ from cycle to cycle in content but not in theme.

This is not to say that substantive issues don’t exist. They do, in all likelihood, but we’re not talking about them so much as we’re talking about talking about them, or talking about the manner in which someone else talks about them. Electoral grammar matters. Politicians aren’t just splitting hairs, they’re splitting the very hairs everyone hangs on and cares about.

The Pennsylvania Senate race between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey, Jr. proves a neat little sentence to diagram. Anyone on the street in my hometown could tell you the former was a tad scary, what with his constantly-paraded-about children and penetrating wince. And so Santorum was unseated – at least, in my opinion – not because he beat dead the fire-and-brimstone mule but because his narrative was unconvincing. People talk, and in kitchens across the state Casey’s Milquetoastiness won the day. Who wants an overly ideological protagonist?

Jackson and Old Tippecanoe and all those other folk developed public personae that were reinterpreted at the regional and community level. None of this is new; now we see it mechanized and beamed. Like any Dickens serial, people buy election stories if the price is right and the plot is easy-to-follow without being condescending. And you can bet that today – like way back when – someone’s being paid by the word.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.