Politics and the power of storytelling, or How strong narratives help win elections

It’s become a mantra of our time that winning elections is about emotion not rational argument. That feelings, in today’s politics, trump facts. But how do you go about harnessing emotion? How do you convert it into electoral success?

One of the most powerful tools for playing on people’s emotions is storytelling – and this holds as true for politics as it does for any other aspect of life. In the cases of both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, it was the campaign that told the best story that best managed to motivate its supporters. With the increasing possibility of another general election before the end of the year – or maybe even a second referendum – this article outlines what it takes to tell powerful political stories, and how they can, and have, swayed elections.

In a fascinating article in GQ in July, Matt Kelly, editor of The New European, offered a brief analysis of the narrative arc that’s playing out in this season of the Brexit saga. Underpinning what might appear as an unruly mix of confusion and chaos is, in fact, a classic three-act structure of the sort used in all good drama. As he explains, each act is bookended by a sudden reversal in fortune – dramatized, in each case, by an unexpected election result – which shifts the story forward in a new and bewildering direction.

Act One: David Cameron accidentally wins a general election he assumed was going to result in a hung parliament. He’s obliged to see through his manifesto pledge to hold a referendum; a commitment that was only ever included in said manifesto as a desperate attempt to stop UKIP eating into the Conservative vote. Act Two: the Leave camp unexpectedly wins the referendum, much to the surprise of many of its main proponents, who’d simply been using the campaign as a way of furthering their own careers. Act Three: faced with the daunting task of carrying out a policy which lacks shape and detail, Theresa May calls a snap general election in the hopes of boosting her bargaining power. All doesn’t quite go to plan however. She ends up with a reduced majority, thus making the task of extricating the government from its self-inflicted miseries even more difficult than it had been before. As Kelly writes, one the many side-effects of all this has been the spectacle of the Conservative Party collapsing in upon itself – a state of affairs which, with perfect dramatic irony, is ‘the very thing the entire episode was designed to prevent’.

The story of Brexit as narrated here is, of course, missing one key component. We don’t yet know what the ending’s going to be. And in the logic of storytelling the ending is all important. As Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, notes, it may seem blindingly obvious but all classic stories turn out either happily or unhappily. And everything that happens to create one type of ending rather than another contributes to ‘the whole… extraordinary significance’ that stories play in our lives.

Which brings us to the way that storytelling works as a form of political persuasion. A powerful story sets up a particular ending, and then projects a series of actions all of which appear to lead inextricably towards that ending. As Mark Laity, director of NATO’s department for strategic communications, explains: narratives offer us a framework for making sense of events. They ‘put things in their place according to our experience, and then tell us what to do’. If you buy into the idea that Brexit is the story of the British people emancipating themselves from the yoke of EU tyranny, for example, then a happy ending requires the country to symbolically break free from this abusive relationship. If, on the other hand, you see the Brexit story as one in which a handful of self-serving politicians misled the public with covert backing from a malign foreign power, then the happy ending will include the restoration of moral probity and good sense, and the country being rescued from economic disaster in the nick of time.

Along with an ending there are a number of other core ingredients needed to make a narrative. First and foremost is a protagonist. This is the figure to whom things happen, and who makes things happen. The character with whom the audience identifies. In politics, as in drama, the principal character needs to be compelling in some way; capable of attracting and controlling the attention of the audience.

Then there’s the antagonist. This is the person or thing that the protagonist must confront and attempt to vanquish. Without an antagonist there’s no protagonist – there’s nothing for him or her to battle against. For the Leave campaign it was easy to assign the role of antagonist. It was the EU itself, which could be characterised as an all-powerful bureaucracy run by a faceless elite. For the Remain side, things were a lot more tricky. Pretty much the best they could do was say we’d be our own worst enemy if we stormed out of the relationship.

Along with the dramatis personae there’s the complicating action: the thing which upends the protagonist’s otherwise settled existence and sets them off on the journey of discovery. A problem occurs and a solution is sought. Again, Leave were able to exploit this idea with ease. The EU was seen as the causal factor for a whole host of hardships that were being experienced by people in the UK. Simply extricating the country from its bureaucratic meddling would, in one fell stroke, solve all these issues. Whereas once again, Remain had little to work with here. Their argument, after all, was basically more of what we already had. Which doesn’t make for a particularly engaging story.

Put these various elements together, and you have a structure that can easily be used to frame your issues. As the political strategist Mark McKinnon notes, losing campaigns string together information, facts and promises. Winning campaigns ‘create a narrative architecture that ties it all together into something meaningful and coherent’. Putting aside the content or message, from a simple structural point of view neither Remain nor Hillary Clinton found a way to wrap their message up in a story which would resonate with the electorate. Whereas Leave and Donald Trump did precisely that.

As a coda, it’s important to note that it’s not enough just to construct a good story. You also need to find ways to tell it. And in this respect, a key principle is that character is story. Telling a convincing story in politics is about enacting that story. It’s about embodying it in your everyday actions. Donald Trump offers the perfect example of this. The story he’s telling is, at its most basic, that of the political outsider taking on the Washington establishment. And thus, the more he goes against the grain of conventional political behaviour and provokes outrage in the established political classes, the more he amplifies this story. His actions may seem chaotic and inconsistent in purely rational terms. But they’re authentic to the character he’s playing. They’re consistent with the narrative he’s telling. And as we’re seeing, the story itself is proving to be robust enough that it can withstand almost any real-life political crisis.