Within the first place there must be a monster, a seemingly unbeatable foe that sweeps all earlier than it and brutalises the residents. After which after all, you want a hero, a frontrunner, a figurehead for a insurgent alliance combating to reclaim paradise for the folks.
Is that this Star Wars or simply on a regular basis politics? There’s truly no nice distinction, though there could also be fewer Wookies in science fiction. That is the central and fully appropriate rivalry of Philip Seargeant’s The Artwork of Political Storytelling, an examination of how politicians win hearts by weaving narratives round themselves. It’s, because the writer says, neither a startling nor a brand new phenomenon, although he brings it updated effectively.
Within the present local weather, the place Orwellian phrases corresponding to post-truth, various info and pretend information litter descriptions of political discourse, the ebook is pitched as a research of recent methods. However as Seargeant exhibits, the weaving of narrative is as outdated as politics itself. The one distinction maybe is the flexibility of politicians to disintermediate themselves from journalists and communicate extra on to voters.
There are, as each Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Booker have written, only a few tales: rags to riches, boy meets woman, unlikely hero slays dragon, and so forth. Booker recognized seven, and virtually all fiction conforms to one in every of these primary archetypes.
In politics there are most likely even fewer. In the intervening time the best is the tribune, a Roman idea of a folks’s champion, despatched to conquer a robust institution that’s denying first rate residents the life they deserve, want or maybe suppose they used to have. There’s all the time an issue, there may be all the time a neighborhood betrayed and there may be all the time a saviour.
Assume Donald Trump placing “America First” in opposition to those that cared extra about foreigners or immigrants than odd residents. Assume Brexit, “Taking Again Management” from an “elite” that had surrendered the nation. But in addition suppose Bernie Sanders, reclaiming America from the wealthy who had been promoting out staff, or Jeremy Corbyn standing tall in opposition to billionaires. The monster will be exterior menace or inner injustice.
The tactic is a staple of each political rebel but in addition of these making an attempt to rally an insurgence in opposition to others. The bottom line is to attract a dividing line during which your facet is the bigger one. President Trump’s enchantment isn’t so completely different from Richard Nixon’s name to the “silent majority” (itself a phrase swiped from Warren Harding) who hated left liberal values and social dysfunction. It’s a tactic now we have seen once more this week when, as US cities riot, Trump is delivering a story of himself as the one man standing agency in opposition to the dysfunction.
A key level right here is that there are two elites, two institutions. For the left, the elite are the wealthy and highly effective. However for the suitable, the elite is social and cultural. The explanation Trump and the Brexiters can ally so effectively with the working class is as a result of they perceive that odd residents are extra offended by mental condescension and the imposition of liberal cultural norms than they’re by wealth. For rightwing populists, the elite are the extremely educated and the well-read.
What has modified is the non-public narrative of the rebel. Whereas Nixon was a standard politician, at this time’s insurgents amplify their outsider standing. The extra outlandish their behaviour, the extra convincing their anti-establishment credentials. The outrage at Trump’s varied transgressions merely satisfied his voters that he would tear down the institution he was offending.
And whereas the rebel stokes up a narrative of a lone hero defying the percentages, the incumbent spins a story of a harmful, unsuitable radical. Seargeant reminds us of 1828 when John Quincy Adams, combating the problem of the offended outsider Andrew Jackson (a person to whom Trump is usually likened) painted apocalyptic visions of how America could be if he had been defeated. A Mission Worry if you’ll.
The opposite acquainted development is the alliance of the champion with the conspiracy theorists. Right now’s insurgents discuss of the “deep state”, the legendary secret energy behind the federal government that stops change. Additionally it is the weapon they’ll use in opposition to anybody who opposes them, as brokers of the deep state, the institution, the illuminati, or the Zionist conspiracy.
In all this Seargeant offers a helpful primer, although it loses momentum within the closing third. narrative can be pithy. A greater beginning place is perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Fashion in American Politics. All good tales want a starting. I’d begin there.
The Art of Political Storytelling, by Philip Seargeant, Bloomsbury, RRP£21.99, 272 pages
Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s chief UK political commentator
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