We Need a Narrative of Peace and Inclusiveness to Save Our Democracies

Narratives are not fairy tales. They are charged political tools. And honest narratives have many enemies these days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 4.
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BERLIN ― We need a new message.

The European Union and its established parties need new stories. But narratives are not simply invented. They must grow out of a community.

We are surrounded by narratives. In Europe, to never again wage war on the continent and in the U.S., “from rags to riches” ― the proverbial American dream.

A narrative is a story whose meaning contains the political character of a society. It normatively effects those who hear it, and through its narration, a community is built.

In liberal democracies, the narratives must not degenerate into fairy tales that begin with 'once upon a time.'

A narrative says: “Here is who we are and what we stand for.” For those of us alive today, such stories are relics from the world of myth. In his book “A Short History of Humankind,” the Israeli historian Yuval Harari claims that, from myth, such narratives stand at the cradle of civilization. Humans, who have always felt a sense of belonging in blood ties and tribal roots, validate their togetherness through stories of common descent and shared ambition. Thus, man cleaves to his tribe and his connection within it and weds its common history with the course of the world. Through these narrative myths, we are given answers to two fundamental questions: Where are we from? Where are we going?

In the narratives of modern day politics, which extol the virtues of individuals, the significance of the “where from” and “where to” questions have nevertheless not faded, whether on the level of nation-states or global ideological communities. They are still about creating a community, establishing order and mobilizing members of a group into common action. Communism and fascism delivered in this sense their own narratives, whose formulation was certain to serve their ahistorical claims while simultaneously justifying their exercise of force to assert them.

The narratives of democratic systems are much more vulnerable. One cannot apply a sense of compulsion towards enforcing or maintaining them. In liberal societies, the founding and sustaining narratives ― in Germany, for instance, that of the social market economy spawned from the economic miracle of Ludwig Erhard ― are in need of support and constant supervision. The American dream burst for many Americans in the financial crisis. The welfare promise of the peace accord that grew into the European Union is forgotten by the citizens of countries most impacted by the Euro crisis. In liberal democracies, the narratives must not degenerate into fairy tales that begin with “once upon a time.”

Merkel visits a classroom in Gaziantep, Turkey on April 23.
Merkel visits a classroom in Gaziantep, Turkey on April 23.

Narratives are not the projects of the elite. They underlie the will of the citizens, and their collective knowledge and memory can only be molded by stories that sound plausible. Narratives in this sense are a precursor to the wisdom of the crowd, which today can be determined through technological means in ways never before possible. “Never again war” ― the foundational narrative of the European Union ― needs no justification. It was understood as the best way to heal the wounds left in Europe’s recent past. It is analogous to the myth of the American dream: so long as people from the bottom could make it to the top, reality confirmed the claim. But now neither story can truly hold its own weight.

Narratives depend tremendously on the time in which they arise. This can be seen particularly clearly in the democratic parties of Germany: social democracy and liberalism are just like the Christian politics employed during this crisis. Democratic parties arose in the second half of the 19th century as a response to the Industrial Revolution, but their certainties no longer retain their pull: to rescue workers from their misery, to emancipate the citizenry and to establish a Christian social order. The environment within which their respective narratives lived are no longer the case. The challenges today are totally different from those faced 150 years ago.

Today requires totally different stories. This was true when the Social Democrats were in charge, then the Liberals and the Christian Democrats will face this reality too as soon as Angela Merkel is no longer the party chairman and the chancellor. 

The challenges today are totally different from those faced 150 years ago.

The fourth and youngest democratic narrative belongs to the Green Movement, which is more relevant now than ever. Their story has long been incorporated by the other established parties and reaches far into the policies of the CDU. The Greens’ principles, environmentalism, social justice and nonviolence will not lose their importance in the foreseeable future.

In recent years, a new narrative has also been emerging with more relevance and plausibility: constitutionalism. Referring to the German constitution and the rule of law has become something of a leitmotif during debates on German integration policy. The central idea is to use the Grundgesetz, Germany’s set of basic laws, as guidelines and axioms for constitutional action, making all citizens within this secular, value-based society equal before the law, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, education, social origin and sexual orientation.

Constitutionalism is the finest exhibition of modern European Enlightenment principles: it has the goal to recognize life, the community of people, as something valuable and meaningful, and to create, shape and fully develop intrinsically comprehensible values. This brings the tension that exists between the freedom of the individual and the obligations to one’s community into a balance. This narrative has not been fully enumerated yet; it is still developing.

Syrian refugees talk during a school festival in the village Golzow, about 50 miles east of Berlin.
Syrian refugees talk during a school festival in the village Golzow, about 50 miles east of Berlin.

Currently, the constitutional narrative is under massive attack: in Germany, from both the new and old right, the Alternative for Germany and the Christian Social Union, who essentially adhere to ethnic notions of the state. Moreover, questions are raised ― and stories fabricated ― purporting that strong men like Vladimir Putin are better able to tap into people’s desire than a constitutional democracy can. The autocrats and dictators have returned. and with them so too has the notion that the will of the people can materialize in their strength and authority. Each of today’s autocrats has at least one minority group that they want most to eliminate ― Putin has the gay community, Europe’s right has the Muslims. That is what dictators do. There is no new story here. In the end, their aim is nothing less than to dismantle the free, liberal order of our democracies.

Narratives are no fairy tales. They are charged political tools. And they provoke opposition, especially when they are opposing a success, like the constitutional history of the Federal Republic of Germany or the peace accord of the European Union. Honest narratives have many enemies.

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