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The narrative

With the passage of time, class conflicts have been blurred, ideologies eroded, and political parties have emerged that political scientists call catch-all parties

Narrative. This is the new buzzword among politicians. "We aren't capable of conveying a convincing narrative," say some. "We need a story to tell," say others. At first sight, we are just looking at the old story of weary politicos complaining that "we don't know how to explain what we are doing." The shift normally happens when the politico, instead of asking the voters why they are unhappy and subjecting his policies to debate, goes to a public relations agency to disguise his poverty of ideas under a new and promising, but in fact hollow, strategy of communication.

The expression "we are not explaining ourselves well," as self-indulgent as it is recurrent, at least has the virtue of frankness - rather like the expression "well, that's soccer" that used to be said with a shrug by coaches, back in the days when soccer, before it became a mass spectacle of astronomical cost, was just a sport, and losing a match now and then a reasonable expectation. But politics has also become a mass spectacle. In the past, politicians presented a program, and people voted for one or the other. Given that the interests and preferences of voters were clear enough, a broad political offering was not required. In the US, as in the majority of post-WWII European democracies, conservatives and liberals alternated in power in function of the good or bad moves they made. The rules of the game were more or less clear: if in four years you had helped more people than you had hurt, you won. Otherwise you lost.

But with the passage of time, class conflicts have been blurred, and ideologies eroded, and political parties have emerged which political scientists call catch-all parties. In their quest for office, these groupings are prepared to show all the ideological flexibility that may be called for, not only not disdaining votes from the contrary camp but designing strategies to attract them. Here is where the "narrative" comes in, aspiring to substitute the old ideologies, and to agglutinate a broad majority of the population.

Two narratives now dominate the language of politics. On the American side, the Democratic and Republican conventions are organized around a single element: "the American dream," which portrays the US as a country where anyone who works hard and is honest can reach the top regardless of his social origin. The American dream is the political story par excellence. The coming elections depend on the voters' impressions of who best represents this story: the millionaire Mormon entrepreneur (Romney) or the son of a mixed-race marriage who went to Harvard (Obama). Michelle Obama talking about her plumber father, and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro evoking his grandmother cleaning floors, have hit this button with great success.

On the European side, the dominant narrative is called "welfare state." In their immense majority, Europeans believe that the state ought to insure its citizens against illness, unemployment and old age, as well as ensure equality of opportunities through a free universal education system. European political debate pivots, not on whether to abolish the welfare state or not, but on how to preserve it. This is why, just as in the US you cannot get elected if you call yourself an atheist, in Europe the same would happen to any politician who proposed to eliminate progressive taxes and turn the provision of pensions, healthcare and education over to purely private hands. Everyone, at least publicly, aims to make the welfare state function more efficiently and at lower cost.

Two different narratives, but with similar consequences. Rather than favoring rational discussion on what policies to adopt, election campaigns become a contest in the telling of stories, which gives the winner a wide margin in which to govern, free of concrete commitments.

Follow me @jitorreblanca and in the blog Café Steiner in elpais.com

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