Once upon a time, a hero arrived in town and asked the citizens to help him defeat a monster at the gates. Once upon another time, a talented outsider with no connections rose up the ranks with principles and perseverance.
Those are two common story archetypes in books, movies and TV shows. Increasingly, they’re also the stories that politicians use to sway the electorate. This is the thrust of The Art of Political Storytelling, Philip Seargeant’s illuminating new book on how emotion, rather than logic, beguiles voters.
His purpose is to reveal the tools and tricks of such narratives, and how they shape our understanding of the world. He delves into the construction of stories, the manner in which they’re shared, and the rhetoric and strategies that surround them. It couldn’t be timelier.
Many, though not all, of the examples are drawn from the impact of 2016, the year of Trump’s election as well as the Brexit referendum. To think that it was a year we referred to as an annus horribilis. Little did we know.
To set the scene, Seargeant touches upon two issues that dominate our political discourse: post-truth and populism. A post-truth world, he writes, is one in which people can be persuaded through appeals to subjective rather than objective reality – whatever that may mean. In such a world, facts are contextual and subject to interpretation.
As for populism, Seargeant says that it isn’t an ideology but an approach: you can have both right-wing and left-wing populist movements with very different agendas but almost identical rhetoric. Political theorists have explained that this tactic gives voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites.
It’s the people versus the privileged, then – and how you describe “people” and “privileged” depends entirely on the tale you’re telling.
The power of stories in general is that they offer ways to understand experiences, and to perceive the world by imposing order on it. They also allow us to create and define identities that form, in Benedict Anderson’s influential words, “imagined communities”.
Over the years, researchers have narrowed the characteristics of stories down to a handful. Vladimir Propp listed the building blocks of folk tales; Kurt Vonnegut mapped eight basic story structures; Christopher Booker classified seven basic plots; and Joseph Campbell charted the stages of a monomythical “hero’s journey”.
Looked at in this way, stories can reveal surprising correspondences. In Vonnegut’s analysis of Cinderella and the New Testament, for example, Seargeant finds that structurally, “there are intriguing links between the founding myth for Christianity, a canonical fairy tale and the ideals that comprise the American Dream.”
For Seargeant, the two current political narratives are the rags-to-riches Cinderella format and the one he calls Overcoming the Monster. In the former, leaders frame themselves as the antithesis of career politicians. They’re heroes not beholden to anyone, free to represent the will of the people. In the latter, “there’s always a corrupt or tyrannical group that is the cause of the disorder in society.” It all sounds depressingly familiar.
When broadcasting such stories, the Network effect comes into play. This is the premise of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film: when TV news starts to vie with entertainment shows, the content of the two begins to mix. Theatrics and sensationalism infect the idea of politics, which becomes an exciting spectator sport. Of course, there’s always social media to signal-boost the worst aspects.
The news, then, is more likely to focus on struggles for power rather than the purposes to which that power is being put. There’s more interest in personal politics and drama than the issues themselves.
Campaign slogans are another way in which stories are compressed and packaged. The more forceful catchphrases stress the desire for change and emphasise the need for action.
In this sense, Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ was more potent than Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’; and Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’ was more effective than Remain’s ‘Stronger, Safer and Better Off’. Both winning slogans appeal to a mythical golden age, which effective stories also tap into.
It’s no surprise that in such an environment, conspiracy theories take root and flourish. After all, such theories function like stories in trying to impose order on a complex and confusing world. Many of them follow the formula of antagonism towards the establishment and cover-ups in high places.
Conspiracy theorists often see themselves as citizen detectives committed to the pursuit of truth. They uncover secret plots and promote their findings online, be it malevolent goings-on in the film industry or cults of devil-worshippers out to weaken society. Of course, such theories can be seeded and used by operators for their own political ends.
Sargeant alludes to studies which have demonstrated that when listening to a story, it’s not just the part of the brain associated with language that lights up. The regions related to emotional, sensory and motor systems are also triggered, implying that listeners don’t merely comprehend the content of a story, but actually experience it.
That’s one of the reasons why, in political debates, pointing out doublespeak and evasions doesn’t work. The artful stories that harness hopes and fears have created a vivid and unblemished picture of reality in which emotions trump reason.
One can wait for prevailing stories to fall apart, for their inconsistencies to become apparent with time and tragedy. Or, better yet, one can come up with more compelling ones. Joan Didion once said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. It’s time we told better stories for better lives.Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.