30 October 2010 3 Comments
Political narratives have the power to make or break a government or a career. Think about the stories that exist today about Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton? Whatever we think of these people there is a lot of learning about the stories surrounding their rise and fall and this can influence how we go about creating successful political narratives.
Beginnings start with good political narratives:
- John Kennedy inspired Americans to think of what they could do for their country.
- Ronald Reagan offered a story of America riding tall in the saddle, not afraid to challenge the “evil empire”
- In 1976, in the aftermath of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter presented a story of clean and morally unambiguous politics.
- Bill Clinton told a good story during the 1992 campaign, convincing Americans that the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, was out of touch and that only he felt their pain.
- George W. Bush told a good story in the wake of Clinton’s impeachment, casting himself as the man to restore dignity to the presidency and therefore to the country.
What these stories have in common is that they found a common language with the people and the story resonated with them and that these successful narratives had a precedence on perceptions and experiences, rather than facts.
How all this pans out in election victories in the UK is complex. Some say elections are won, others that elections are lost. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Conservative story for the 2010 election was one of change, as was the Lib Dems’. However, neither made significant progress. Maybe people do not want change for change sake. They sometimes know what they want changed and other times can be convinced of change, but some change people do not want. A very successful narrative was seen in 2008 when Obama not only talked about change but embodied the change the country wanted to see.
so why do so many British politicians – and yes, I’m thinking here about Liberal Democrats – insist on giving us lists of policies instead of telling stories that would be so much more powerful? Neil Stockley
But not all stories are powerful. Remember the Tories ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’? Well not that many people were and this maybe because the language they were using did not fit into modern Britain and did not demonstrate the change people wanted to see.
Using a common language has some advantages:
- People notice that the politician/party is attentive to their hopes and fears which helps to make them feel taken seriously.
- People notice that the politician/party understands and accepts their hopes and fears that they have been expressing. This gives them a feeling of security and trust.
- Language matching helps national messages spread easily. This is because people do not have to interpret what is being said and avoids messages being dismissed based on who it is said.
Just think of the ‘Big Society’ and how much difficulty the Conservatives had with it during the election. We are still debating what it is which misses the point of a national message and policy initiatives. So getting your narrative right is a key to success yet:
The public sphere is an energy field in which mixed interests and explanations of reality coexist despite deep contradictions (Postmodern Public Administration. Fox & Miller 1995)
An ideal political narrative is therefore one which utilises the multiplicity of narratives that citizens could choose in order to bring about change that they want. A master narrative which everyone buys into is impossible which is why politicians keep their messages vague e.g. Obama, to recruit as many as possible.
But is as many people as possible what we really want? When the Liberal Party won a massive landslide victory in 1906 the leadership worried that it would not be able to keep this level of support together; and they didn’t and the election became known as the success they never recovered from. But the leader of the Liberal Party used successful narratives and coined a phrase that changed a politics of a generation – ‘methods of barbarism’ (referring to the concentration camps in South Africa). It is too early to know if this will be the way of Obama with his skillful oratory.
Neil Stockley points out that you can have a political narrative but you cannot own it so it is open to interpretation and change. While you cannot own the narrative about you and your party, having an open dialogue with citizens and using the same language can help a political message. The priority should be to find a common language to describe what citizens’ want to change and begin to explore how those changes would affect their lives.