Back in 2016, as Trump and Brexit tore across the western world, I was struggling to understand. Why had these forces become so powerful now? What were the campaigns doing which were proving so effective? Specifically, what were the losing campaigns – Remain and Hillary Clinton – not doing?
Around the same time, I was beginning my final year of formal education, the pressure of A-Levels ratcheting up. In a bid to improve my grades, I was working in the library more and more, particularly focusing on finding the links between my subjects: English Literature, Film and Politics. They were not chosen in isolation, for any individual’s study choices are reflective of them and their interests, so it stood to reason there was some overlap which could help with streamlining the revision. But what?
And then everything clicked into place.
As I explained in a video essay, Brexit happened because of the story Vote Leave told – of a radical underdog fighting against the evil empire, a narrative which is present throughout human history, from David and Goliath to Star Wars. Such a narrative was echoed in the Trump campaign, alongside other defining stories of sovereignty, democracy and identity. As Andy Wigmore said about the social media campaign, quoted in All Out War, “when you put out something on economics, we would get three or four thousand likes … If you put out something emotive you would get something like four hundred or five hundred thousand likes, and in some cases two or three million.”
Since 2016, I’ve read and researched a great detail on the intersection between narrative and politics, time and time again returning to humanity’s apparent narrative disposition. None have been more eye-opening than Frederick W. Mayer’s Narrative Politics, one of the few academic texts to explore this relationship coherently. If you’re a relative academic newcomer then the text can sometimes be eye-glazing (I certainly found myself re-reading the odd passage or twenty), and I wonder if Mayer would ever re-publish the book as an accessible novel a la Sapiens, which covers similar ground. Nonetheless, the content of the book is illuminating.
As the subtitle suggests, Mayer is interested in the collective action problem – or rather, the collective action conundrum. We all act collectively all the time, be it when we vote, when we protest, or even when we show up to work. But why? And how? It can’t be traditional self-interest because of the number of scenarios in which it is in our self-interest to act but are instead passive, such as when we don’t protect the environment or don’t stop eating fast food.
Weaving together political theory, psychology, neuroscience and more, Mayer highlights how collective action is rooted in storytelling, with the book framed around Martin Luther King’s seminal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Collective action is most successful when the participants believe in something, be it the functions of democracy (a story we made up) or self-enrichment (the value of money deriving from our collective belief that it has value).
If everything’s one big made-up story, the question then becomes how? How have we evolved to have this narrative propensity? Much of it is down to history, Mayer argues. History is written in the present, with events framed so as to sit within a bigger historical narrative; Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, alongside ‘I Have a Dream,’ both placed the Civil War and civil rights movement within the context of America’s long-standing affection with freedom. Indeed, he cites an example wherein American high school students were asked to produce accounts of their country’s history, which all inevitably converged around the theme of fighting for freedom.
But history has to come from somewhere, as does our ability to narrativise it. In a fascinating chapter, Mayer explores our cognitive capacity for narrative, which sounds silly, but how else do we explain our innate ability to construct sequences of events within the mind, create that which is not true and differentiate between truths? One of the earliest known examples of art is an ivory figure of a man with a lion’s head, for example. Linguistically, one of the key differentials between humanity and other animals is our ability to articulate beyond basic observations (pretty much all animals can communicate that they need food, but can they explain why?), and the fictions we do tell are always reflective of the human condition. How often have you seen a sci-fi movie with a social commentary?
For time immemorial it’s been known that the way to understand politics is to follow current affairs, study political theory and perhaps indulge in some of the other social sciences. Perhaps, in reality, the real key to enlightenment was lying right underneath our noses, hiding in our ears, and stood before our eyes.