There have been numerous definitions recently brought forth to describe the term post-truth. Brahms (2020) defines it as “the loss of fact-based objective truth“, while Arendt (1967) considers it as “a blurring of the differentiation between fact-based truth and opinion“. One of its defining characteristics, touched on by Arendt (1967), is that a post-truth environment is one in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotion and personal biases. The philosophical underpinnings of the post-truth era are generally the deniability of objective truth: that everything, from facts to the perceived truth, is subjective and, therefore, open to debate and scepticism (Wight, 2018). Today, the word has become a popular way to refer to the contemporary world, especially the political sphere. In this opaque post-truth political setting, emotion trumps logic: it is passion, not rationality, which is effective in persuading people. In this context, manufacturing a political narrative with easily definable enemies and heroes, and an origin story and journey, has become one of the most effective ways of appealing to people’s emotions and persuading them (Seargeant, 2021). For this reason, it has become especially important to analyse how a political narrative is manufactured, and why it is so effective.
This article will discuss the primary elements of creating political narratives, especially drawing on the recent book “The Art of Political Storytelling” by Phillip Seargeant (2021). Then, it will proceed with a brief explanation of the relationship between post-truth reality and the ascendance of populism. Finally, it will discuss the nature of modern political narratives; their structure, language, and implications.
Populism and Post-Truth
As mentioned in the introduction, the term ’post-truth’ has become a popular epithet to define the current age, in which appeals to emotion and personal biases are more influential than appeals to objective facts (Crowley, 2018). The definition rests on the idea that truth and facts are subjective, so objective facts do not even exist and objective reality is debatable. Such vision is best illustrated by the idea that “facts don’t exist in a vacuum… They are selected… And ultimately their meaning derives from the context in which they’re presented” (Seargeant, 2021, p. 22). In other words, even facts can be distorted, depending on how they are presented and “the interpretation you put on them for the argument you’re making” (Seargeant, 2021, p. 22). Taken in a post-truth context, such arguments allow not only for the dismissal of nearly any idea based on ’facts’, but lead to a complete epistemological crisis on a societal level since within society it appears that everything, even the most basic and provable facts, can be disputed. In the political sphere, such a philosophy has its root in a partisan environment of identity politics, in which facts or truths which don’t support the political line of a supported faction are cast into doubt (Wight, 2018). This point can best be summed up by Hannah Arendt, who states that the most significant antagonist of factual truth is an opinion (Arendt, 1967). On a societal level, the emergence of the trend towards the deniability of truth and facts is generally blamed on social media and how it permits the rapid creation and dissemination of disinformation (Rogers & Niederer, 2020).
The ascendance of post-truth has coincided with another interesting development, i. e., the resurgence of populism. Populism has been steadily on the rise: 7% of voters across Europe voted for a populist party in 1998, whereas 1 in 4 votes was cast for a populist party in the most recent national elections in 2018 (Lewis et al., 2018). Given the simultaneous emergence of both trends, it has often been posited that a relationship exists between the two (Barbieri, 2018; Seargeant, 2021). According to Seargeant, the common thread is the centrality of emotion to both post-truth and populism (Seargeant, 2021). Whereas a post-truth reality is one in which emotion trumps logic, populism is also based “mostly on an emotional idea: that the establishment has ignored the needs and aspirations of ordinary, everyday citizens; that they’re out of touch with normal people’s concerns; out of touch with their struggles and hardships” (Seargeant, 2021, p. 37). In other words, populism is an emotional reaction to politics; instead of being a specific ideology, it is more about a feeling of being ‘betrayed’ by the elites. In this scenario, there is the protagonist (the people), the antagonist (the elites), and the mission: to give “a voice to the voiceless” (Seargeant, 2021, p. 46). What is important is that populism thrives primarily on quite a simple storyline, one which is primarily based on emotion (Spruyt, Keppens & Van Droogenbroeck, 2016).
Storytelling has always been central to the arts of politics and persuasions. Stories and shared narratives are one of the most important foundations upon which human beings can build common communities. For example, at the foundation of nearly all modern states is an origin story, one which clearly defines the values and history upon which the modern state is built (Neile, 2015). Political campaigns and factions also heavily utilise storytelling and narrative creation for political ends. In this sense, to inspire electorates and portray a tangible vision and roadmap, politicians often tell a story about who America is, what the nation stands for, and what type of country the nation wants to be. Such process is traced both on the right and left in America and is further observable throughout the world. In France, Emmanuel Macron was influenced heavily by the philosophy of philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whom he worked for as a research assistant as a young man (Astier, 2018). Ricoeur (1991) believed that people should view themselves in terms of their narrative identity, which is informed by stories they tell about themselves and each other and the overarching narrative. In China, Xi Jinping has also spoken about the ancient tradition of storytelling by statesmen in China (Seargeant, 2021). In the end, political narratives help people make sense of the world and tell them how to behave.
According to Seargeant (2021), modern political storytelling follows a general pattern. The first component of modern political storytelling is the use of a narrative as a persuasion tool. Although various narratives are used in modern American politics, one of the most overused examples is that of the “Cinderella Man”. The original story on which the Cinderella Man model is based was about depression-era boxer Jack Braddock, an Irish-American who through hard work and grit, becomes the unsuspecting heavyweight champion of the world. It’s a classic David and Goliath story. In the American political context, the ‘Cinderella Man’ story is valuable in that it espouses all the values of the American Dream: an immigrant, starting from the bottom, who through hard work and sticking to his principles made it to the top (Seargeant, 2021). The relevance to modern American political storytelling is that nearly every candidate in recent times has sought to utilise this narrative: to portray themselves as the “underdog so as to downplay their chances, while simultaneously suggesting the other side has been gifted an unfair advantage" (Seargeant, 2021, p. 80). John McCain, Barack Obama, Donald Trump; even Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, all sought to portray their own story as that of the underdog (Seargeant, 2021). It is crucial to understand that behind every modern political story is a narrative, which has been manufactured to portray a candidate or a political context in a certain way.
The second component of modern political storytelling is an oft-utilised structure. Various authors and researchers over time have attempted to distil the basic structure of human stories into a few easily identifiable categories. In his classification, Booker (2019) states that there are five overarching narrative archetypes which are constantly reproduced and reworked across film, plays, and novels: the quest, the voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, and tragedy, rags to riches, and overcoming the monster. Seargeant (2021) posits that in modern political narratives, it is the rags to riches and the overcoming of the monster narratives which often feature as the archetypal structure. The rags to riches structure follow the general pattern of a protagonist stuck in a bad environment, who through determination, good fortune, and hard work, fights their way out of this environment and eventually receives a happy ending. The overcoming the monster archetype is generally about a community facing a threat by some evil force, at which point an unsuspecting hero steps forth, does battle with the evil ‘monster’, and vanquishes it, thus restoring peace to the community and learning valuable lessons along the way. Both of these archetypes are omnipresent in contemporary political discourses and serve as a means by which politicians “reduce complex situations into simple fables” which are readily intelligible and consumable to the masses (Seargeant, 2021, p. 95).
One further element of modern political storytelling, related to the archetypal storylines listed above, is that contemporary political campaigns and platforms are generally focused on one of two simple emotions: hope or fear (Seargeant, 2021). In the case of the rags to riches political narrative, the underlying emotion is optimistic and full of hope, with the leader of the campaign embodying the possibility of this vision. The campaign of Barack Obama and his hopeful slogan of ‘Change’ represents a clear example, along with other Democrats such as Bill Clinton (Lebouef, 2016). On the other hand, the overcoming the monster narrative is pinned to the narrative of fear: the community is under threat, and the leader of the campaign is the hero willing to confront and slay the evil monster. Various right-wing political campaigns have utilised this approach in recent years, proposing numerous fear-based visions of the future if not elected. Trump, in his self-constructed narrative, represents the prime personification of the reluctant hero stepping forth to slay the beast (Wimberly, 2018).
Daniel Myers, in an analysis of campaign ads aired in the United States Congressional elections in 2010 and 2012, found that stories tended to have six different archetypal formats. These were: ”politician‘s family struggle”, ”politician makes own success”, ”constituent helped”, ”constituent loss”, ”constituent harmed”, and uncategorised (2017). Such stories broadly fall into two categories: they either focus on the experience of the political candidate running the ad, or that of an average citizen who was affected by the candidate airing the ad or their opponent (Myers, 2017). According to Myers, these ads were highly specific and ”foundational to the identity of one of a small number of highly regarded social groups: veterans, small business owners, families, or Americans as a whole” (Myers, 2017, p. 19). This point once again provides strong evidence for the strength of storytelling in both persuasion and identity formation. Yet, what is perhaps most interesting is that these archetypes also fall into the categories of hope and fear, as indicated by Seargeant. In Myer‘s examples, ”politicians family struggle”, ”politician makes own success”, ”constituent helped”, and ”constituent loss” are all hope-based, focusing either on the success story of the politician or on the constituent‘s prospects for a brighter future under the candidate airing the ad. The ”constituent harmed” framework on the other hand, ”communicates the experience of a person is harmed as a result of the actions of a politician, in this case, the opponent of the favoured candidate” (Myers, 2017, p. 20). In this case, the ad touches on the fear of the constituent, portraying the narrative that there will be negative consequences if the opposing candidate is elected. Again, the emotional emphasis on fear or hope is central to the emotional political story the candidate is seeking to tell.
In the age of post-truth, political storytelling has become more important than ever. In a time when objective facts have lost significance, and even come to be doubted entirely, the stories political actors tell us about our communities, our pasts, and our futures, will continue to take on oversised importance in how people view themselves, their nation, and the people around them. In this sense, it should be hoped that by being able to identify the simple and often utilised narrative structures political actors use to portray themselves and their messages, electorates can identify the patterns and dynamics of political communication.
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