The role of history in political campaigns

The role of history in political campaigns

‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ – George Orwell, 1984

It has been a strange year for political communications, and few would deny it. The quote above captures the essence of this year’s most persuasive political campaigns. They have contextualised their key messages within an idyllic vision of the past.

‘Take back control’. ‘Make America great again’. These words constitute the two most iconic slogans of UK and US political campaigns in 2016. Both slogans anchor their messages in history; both promise a vision for the future, by appealing to a collective feeling, and subjective memory of the past. But the questions still remain: Which Britain have we taken control of? What era of greatness was Trump referring to?

This is by no means a new strategy. When the Irish Republicans relaunched their campaign for a united Ireland in 1956, they did so by ‘remembering’. In context, they reminded their audience of the ‘age-old struggle of the Irish people versus British aggression’. The successful communication of a collective narrative drove one of the most impactful insurgencies of all time.

One of Irish Republican Bobby Sands’ inspirations, during his 66-day hunger strike, was a Protestant named Wolfe Tone. Tone had fought for an inclusive Ireland for all. Indeed, many of the Republican figures who inspired the IRA narrative in the had originally fought for very different ideals.

History can drive a narrative. Equally, though, failing to ground a campaign in history, can also negatively impact its result. For example, the “Free French” faced great difficulties in establishing a resistance base outside of their country during World War II. The historian Lewis Namier has argued that one of the main reasons for these difficulties was due to the lack of an historical precedent.

There has been a wealth of analysis on the rise of ‘fake news’ recently. Although factually incorrect, false reporting also presents a myopic view of history, often used to support political campaigns.

Despite this selective appeal towards a shared history, it is clear that both Donald Trump’s presidential race and the ‘Leave’ movement were two of the most successful campaigns of the past year. Both narratives swayed their audiences with incorrect information. However, the resonance of their messages stems from society’s acceptance of history as a set of facts, rather than an interpretation.

In light of this emerging trend of misinformation, many have asked if it would be better to just forget.

I would argue the opposite. We should remember, but we should do so while mindful of history’s power; the view of history we share can be an invaluable communication tool. Nonetheless, when we use history to anchor our messages it is always a selective use of history, leading us to imagine our past and remember our future.

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