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Beyond Politics

Politics and Story – when mentioned in a single breath these words conjure up warnings against the deterioration of politics through staging and aestheticization. But is this antipathy still relevant today? Can politics afford to do without the meaningful and mobilising force of narratives? Our answer: no, as the ‘story’ principle is a constitutive element of political activity.

Contact: Dr. Christopher Vorwerk, Senior Associate

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Politics is Changing

Our political culture is being shaped by various frictions that are putting the democratic state to the test. Disaffection among political actors is growing. Above all, this affects the relationships between elected representatives and the people they represent – and is articulated in the accusation of power or elite politics, in the strengthening of populist movements, and in the emergence of echo chambers in the media.

On the other hand, we are being confronted with complex global challenges in many fields. These are increasingly being met with expertise, practical constraints or technocracy on the one hand, or with one-dimensional answers on the other. All this disempowers and demands too little from citizens, and it undermines the eternal political argument about the society and state we wish to live in.

At the same time, there are growing demands on political action. The slogans associated with the post-factual age and a fragmented public are thus indicative of the fact that politics can neither rely on irrefutable certainties nor be limited to the exchange of argumentative blows in parliament. Today’s politics has to respond to a large number of different actors, the plurality of worldviews and a society organised on a multi-media basis.

“It obviously isn’t ideas, arguments, ideologies, interests, delusions, capital and power that are competing in the political arena but narratives!”

Manfred Schneider, Emeritus Professor of German Literature at Ruhr University Bochum, Neue Zürcher Zeitung 2018

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Beyond Politics – shaping the political narrative

It is against the backdrop of these developments that the question of credible meaningfulness arises. Here is where the function and effectiveness of strategic narratives lies. They consolidate a political agenda without constituting an empty slogan. Chosen intentionally, they allow political actors to clarify their self-perception and political mission – and thereby guide their actions. This applies both to individual actors, associations and parties, as well as to foundations, NGOs and public institutions. If, for example, Germany’s biggest trade association decides - after a narrative-readjustment process - to become the best commercial information agency rather than chief industry lobbyist, this altered self-perception will lead to different activities and a different agenda. The transformation is articulated on various levels. It affects individual elements such as the structure of a website or the tone of a press release as well as fundamental issues such as organisational structure, the distribution of tasks or thematic priorities.

As far as the public and collective use of narratives is concerned, it becomes clear that they mark out a macro-social goal and can thus reorganise a political field of activity. Moreover, narratives are characterised by the complex interplay of the dimensions of activity and time. Invoking a narrative therefore makes it possible to establish, motivate and espouse a political agenda over a long period of time.

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Action and mobilisation

By invoking the imagination, narratives mobilise more effectively than argumentation alone. This can be seen in examples such as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again / America first!” or Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” (“We’ll do it”), which give meaning to abstract goals such as GDP, community, integration or sovereignty, and in doing so tie in with people’s everyday lives.

Political actors who want to reach and mobilise people need strategic narratives. WAALD supports them from the compilation of a strategic narrative to the implementation of their political agenda.