Imagine a time not very far in the future. You wake up in the morning with the sun in your eyes and head to the kitchen to get your day going. You pour some coffee and crack an egg as the radio hums in the background. You sit down and start to scroll through your feeds: TikTok, Instagram, and, unfortunately, Twitter. Across the board, panicked, breathless news about another big bank failure is spreading, and there’s no shortage of hot takes to explain what’s going on.
The TikTok girlies are talking about how capitalism kills everything and wondering where their student loan bailout is while they apply a perfect smokey eye. Let it all burn to the ground!
Legacy media outlets interview economists and government officials who are trying to calm the waters and make a case for yet another bank bailout.
The conservative media ecosystem is using the crisis to further its culture war agenda—targeting “corporate wokeness” and socially responsible (ESG) investment strategies while emphasizing the essential role of corporations as the engine of the US economy.
Progressives, leftists, and a handful of populist GOP elected officials are discussing protections for the working class and how corrupt the traditional finance industry and the “elites” are.
It even comes up that night! You have some friends over for dinner, and you’re all trying to figure out what’s happening, if your money is safe, or if this latest crisis will drive up the prices of essential goods like groceries and gas.
Suddenly, we’re swimming in a rough and choppy ocean of clashing stories, messages, and values. But it’s also no surprise. We’ve seen this show a few times before.
Embedded in these clever videos, staid reports, and community conversations are various narratives knocking against each other and offering us different ways to make sense of what’s happening—how we should feel about it and what we should do about it. Stories and messages in these kinds of conversations hinge on values and transmit critical narratives about the role of government and the economy. There are narratives about government overreach or incompetence operating alongside the competing notions about whether the role of government is to serve the people or corporate interests. Narratives about free market capitalism that cast corporations as the lifeblood of the economy compete with growing anti-capitalist narratives that center workers and care.
While the stories and narratives we outlined are part of an imagined scenario, we just watched the government support another failing financial institution (Silicon Valley Bank) and it’s not hard to imagine another big bank collapse in the future. The details of those future stories—the color, and the mood of the content, the influencers, and megaphones—might be different, but the narratives will endure.
Mapping the landscape, predicting the future
That’s precisely why it’s vital that organizers get ready and stay ready to engage in narrative openings when they present themselves. Every year, ReFrame publishes a set of predictions that forecasts which narratives will play a critical role in the year ahead and names story trends that are likely to emerge, quiet down, or ramp up. ReFrame’s narrative predictions also make recommendations about how to combat harmful stories and messages, and where and how to pick narrative fights on our own terms. These predictions are based on our approach to narrative research, which combines insights gleaned from powerful AI technology and conversations with partners and movement formations. Our team is not academic, but we are rigorous and informed by our organizing backgrounds, lineages, and deep, diverse experiences and expertise as people of color, femme, and queer folks.
This is not research for research’s sake; our narrative research is designed to be actionable, inform strategy, and support long-term organizing and communications work. And it’s an approach that works; most of the predictions in ReFrame’s 2022 report, Through the Looking Glass, came to pass. Conversations in the 2022 midterms were defined by stories about crime and bail reform, amplified by a healthy dose of misinformation. These crime wave narratives influenced elections in New York, California, and Ohio. Narratives that painted democracy and America at a crossroads also dominated conversations ahead of the elections. We watched culture war narratives escalate. Attention-grabbing stories are no longer limited to attacks against critical race theory (CRT) and Black scholarship under the guise of protecting (white) children. In fact, they have expanded, targeting queer and trans people in all realms of public life, public education and even corporations that deploy some socially progressive policies.
Our 2023 predictions, Catalyzing Ripples, contain six critical narrative predictions that will shape the terrain this year. They include the American Identity Crisis, which revolves around the fate of American democracy and what exactly it means to be American; and Authenticity and Experience, which explores how these two important notions will shape narratives of identity, belonging, and worthiness. Both of these narrative predictions will play a key role in any organizer’s long-term work around voting, participation, and efforts to build a transformational, multiracial democracy. Themes of authenticity and experience will also influence conversations about consumerism, how we define our relationships with online influencers and celebrities (also known as parasocial relationships) and what meaningful engagement for ourselves and our communities looks like. We can use these predictions to inform and shape how we organize, communicate, and strategize in the contexts we work in and with the people we serve.
American identity crisis
In 2023, stories and narratives that transmit rigid definitions of what it means to be an American are being wielded like a pickaxe to divide different groups along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, disability, and more. They are also the backdrop against which conversations about democracy and governance unfold. Recently, we’ve seen this play out in the increased conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in public institutions and emerging events, like the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, which right wing influencers like Senator Josh Hawley and The Daily Wire blamed on woke culture.
Ongoing attacks against critical race theory (CRT) and queer and trans people are based on the Right’s messaging on parents’ rights and family values, which set the frame of the conversation, animate their base to action, and seek to engage new audiences. These concepts, typically coded white and heteronormative, provide a narrow interpretation of who belongs and who gets to participate in the shaping of our public institutions like public schools and elections. Led by networked organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Family Policy Alliance, and Alliance Defending Freedom, efforts to exclude and erase queer and trans people or Black scholarship in public schools ultimately further white supremacist narratives and reflect a narrow and exclusionary worldview where power is held by a small minority. This narrative contest is punctuated by nihilism and despair, expressed across ideologies and political parties.
We have a few challenges: we need to contend not only for power but also for the hearts and minds of people, especially those who can be persuaded to join in the struggle for liberation. But there is a narrative opening in the desire to build an inclusive, intersectional future that bridges the past and the present. In the last few years, we have seen folks harness the narrative power of democracy to engage folks, not just in the act of voting but in the long-term project of democracy-building predicated on an expansive vision of what it means to be American. We can see these narrative interventions all around us. Joy to the Polls and Poder Quince in Texas bring joy and belonging to voting, while Maricopa County’s 2022 Election Command Center – run by a Republican – squashed mis-and disinformation while elevating narratives about trust in government and equal voting access. Organizers, communicators, and institutions can harness the power of this prediction to game out how American Identity – on both the personal and the national level – will be used to divide us in 2023 and 2024 and construct a narrative strategy that unites us instead.
Authenticity and experience
Predictions aren’t just about what we think will happen in the news cycle. They also help us track the mood and tone of the moment. This year, as folks rebalance their work, life, family, and political commitments, they place a premium on living authentically. The so-called post-pandemic has many of us trying to make up for lost time, grappling with the expectation that we go back to normal as though the last three years were an anomaly. This myth of normalcy influences the ways people choose to move forward. As organizers and communicators, we need to take note of these narrative trends and use them to think about how to engage with folks in a time when stories and narratives about authenticity and unique experiences are on the rise. How are we engaging with different audiences in meaningful ways? How do they see themselves? How do they see progressive organizations? Are we being genuine and authentic, or extractive and transactional?
Folks will show up and take risks together when it comes to living authentically and having deep experiences. We can harness narratives about authenticity to inform power-building strategies on-and off-line while calling out when others show up in cynical and inauthentic ways. By incorporating joyful experiences into power-building work, we can invite new folks and persuade long-time organizers to stay in the fight.
We can also diversify our tactics. If we offer entry points like pop-ups in barber shops or tabling at the neighborhood block party, we can meet folks where they’re at – after all, people don’t need permission to be themselves, just an invitation. Navigating the waters of both politics and pop culture means we can strategically deploy liberatory narratives across topics, conversations, audiences, platforms, and languages through meaningful experiences. From protests that make their way into the world of gaming to drag queens and kings raising tens of thousands of dollars to support grassroots LGBTQIA+ formations, we see how organizations, collectives, and small groups of people leverage pop culture to spread messages, stories, and narratives rooted in healing and justice beyond the choir.
The road ahead
The stories and messages we see in our research rely on age-old, powerful narratives that cycle again and again through the public arena. As we look to the year ahead, ReFrame’s narrative predictions are an offering to organizers, communicators, and formations across the broader movement ecosystem to help us plan forward together instead of feeling like we’re on our back foot during flashpoint moments. If we understand what’s to come, we can build strength toward governing and economic power, connect our struggles across issues of racial and gender justice and push back against the assault on democracy.
This narrative landscape assessment can ground our work in building strategies to win. There are always opportunities to critique the system as it is. Still, it is critical to harness the power of narrative when we see an opening to offer people a different way of making sense of the world and shift the ground beneath our feet in service of justice and liberation.
Featured image by Laura Dunn, from ReFrame’s Catalyzing Ripples: 2023 Narrative Predictions.