🔮 Populist storytelling beyond the buzzword

Narrative approaches are currently experiencing a golden age in many domains of political science. And yet, when it comes to populism studies, scholars are still rather reluctant to adopt a narrative perspective. Kostiantyn Yanchenko explains why studying populist storytelling can be beneficial for the discipline

In their foundational post in this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti identify three die-hard myths about populism. One of these associates it with specific political positions. This perception is, of course, a fallacy, but it becomes particularly evident when approaching populism from the narrative perspective.

In narratology, types of stories rather than specific stories are the focus of study. As a result, the exact topic of a narrative is completely irrelevant, as are the identities of the characters within a populist narrative. Provided a story follows a populist narrative structure, we can consider it populist.

A populist narrative structure

The narrative structure of any story comprises the ways its various elements, including characters, plot, and meaning, relate to each other. In the case of populist stories, core ideas of populism inform their narrative structure.

To illustrate, let us take characters. Populism adheres to a Manichean vision of the world. As a result, populist narratives always feature black-and-white characters. Such characters are not complex and ambiguous, but instead are either wholly positive or negative. Moreover, they can only assemble into two homogenous collective entities – a positive in-group and a negative out-group. As both in- and out-group are uniform, the only possible type of relationship between them is antagonism.

Populist narratives always feature black-and-white characters, who can only assemble into two homogenous collective entities – a positive in-group and a negative out-group

At this point, we can already see how the features of one element of a populist narrative (its characters) determine its other elements (the plot and the conflict).

When approached this way, the populist narrative is simply a story about the conflict between a positive homogeneous group and a negative homogeneous group. The latter are also hierarchically higher than the former.

Let us now discuss some of the implications of this view of populist narratives.

Can any story be told in a populist way?

My recent experimental study shows that populist narrative structure can be used to frame very different kinds of political messages. This includes messages not commonly associated with a populist political agenda.

My experiment asked people from the US to read journalistic features with and without populist framing on such topics as climate change, human rights, and school shootings. In all three cases, participants reported finding stories following a populist narrative structure more appealing. Furthermore, people who read populist narratives perceived climate change, human rights, and school shootings attached greater importance to these issues than did the people who read non-populist narratives.

In another study, Johan Nordensvard and Markus Ketola looked at the climate change narratives of Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg. While these two people promote opposite political messages, they often follow the same populist narrative structure, relying on 'acts of truth-telling by the hero'.

These and other studies using narrative approaches demonstrate how parting with the stereotype about populism’s link to specific political positions can get us a step closer to understanding its persuasive appeal. Among other things, this applies to the ability of populist storytelling to activate archetypal images and elicit affective responses in recipients.

Do populist narratives work for everyone?

Previous studies have shown that the effect of populist messages in non-narrative settings often depends on the characteristics of the people who encounter those messages. For example, Dominique Wirz found that 'individuals with a populist predisposition experienced more anger in response to the populist posters'. There are also other common factors that influence how likely populist messages are to appeal to an individual. These include their level of education, their income level, and so on.

However, in narrative settings, this should not necessarily be the case. In my experimental study, the positive effect of a populist narrative structure on the appeal of political stories was stable across groups with different political partisanship. (In this case, I looked at Democrats and Republicans.) Likewise, people with more and less populist attitudes were equally likely to be affected by populist stories.

When political messages are delivered in narrative form, people are busy following the story’s plot and characters, and less likely to resist persuasion

The explanation of this seemingly counterintuitive finding may lie in the ability of narratives to overcome resistance to persuasion. In non-narrative settings, the persuasive intent of political messages is apparent and often backfires. But when political messages are delivered in narrative form, people are busy following the story’s plot and characters. As a result, they are less likely to protect their pre-existing attitudes.

This finding does not mean that populist storytelling is universally effective. But it does illustrate the importance of the form in which populist messages are delivered.

Where to find populist narratives?

The good thing about narratives in general and populist narratives in particular is that they can be found virtually everywhere. Moreover, from the narratological perspective, they not only can but should be found and studied in diverse venues and platforms.

Traditionally, political and communication sciences have maintained rather strict and artificial boundaries between politically relevant and irrelevant information. The first category includes such 'high genres' as parliamentary speeches and news bulletins. Meanwhile, fiction and various forms of entertainment and popular culture are often reserved for other disciplines.

At the psychological level, people process fictional and non-fictional narratives in similar ways

Such division is inadequate from the perspective of narratology. At the psychological level, people process fictional and non-fictional narratives in similar ways.

To illustrate, in a recent study, I talked to 25 Ukrainians who voted for Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019. They had done so after watching the prototypically populist comedy series Servant of the People featuring Zelensky as a fictional president of Ukraine. Most interviewees reported that the narrative world of the series positively affected their desire to vote for Zelensky in real life.

While this case is extreme, it points to the need to extend our understanding of the relevant sources of political communication. This is especially important in the case of populist actors who often favour unconventional political competition. Narrative perspectives on populism have a lot to tell us. And attending to all sources and forms of political communication is both a natural and a theoretically grounded choice.

30th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Kostiantyn Yanchenko
Kostiantyn Yanchenko
Research Assistant, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Hamburg

Kostiantyn’s doctoral dissertation focused on the concept, effects, and audiences of populist storytelling.

His recent publications on populism in Ukraine and beyond have appeared in Populism, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Mass Communication and Society, and European Societies.

He tweets @KoyanHam

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