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.
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.”