The Appeal of Populist Storytelling

The project, which is situated between the two research groups Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation and Polycentric Governance, reflects a methodological and conceptual agenda of studying narratives and symbolic politics. Getting a better understanding of the performative dimension of politics, the group is interested in different forms of symbolic representations such as images, metaphors or performative art and in the role they play in modern governance practices. Contrary to recent trends of understanding these aspects of politics through the lens of cognitivist frame analysis, the group studies the emotional appeal and affective aspects of political storytelling. One starting premise is that the combination between imagery (e.g. metaphors) and narratives helps to make sense of performativity and at the same time offers an innovative research tool for studying these processes in empirical terms.

One important goal of the project is to analyse the growing appeal of populist movements in most Western liberal democracies and to reconstruct the role which the rejection of globalization has played in this process. More precisely, it looks at the rise of backlash movements which attract citizens by arousing various, partly contradicting emotions, by celebrating indignation against political elites, or telling stories about a harmonious past of closed national communities. The project analyses in which ways images, metaphors and narratives are used by populist activists and politicians to this effect. A further goal would be to demonstrate whether similar modes of persuasion can (and should?) be used by those defending liberal democracy and transnational cooperation. A general interest in new forms of political representation and expression (e.g. communication practices) that risk undermining core democratic values is also at the core of this project.  

The project is open towards researchers interested in symbolic politics in different policy fields and in the role of language and emotions in politics.

Keywords Symbolic Politics, Performativity, Narrative, Images, Metaphor, Emotions Populism, Anti-Globalization, Identity, Culture(s)

Further members: Sabrina Pischer, Eva Marie Trösser, Elena Simon, Wouter Werner

Related Publications

Freistein, Katja/Gadinger, Frank/Unrau, Christine (2022). It Just Feels Right: Visuality and Emotion Norms in Right-Wing Populist Storytelling. International Political Sociology 16:4, 1-23. 

Freistein, Katja, Gadinger, Frank and Unrau, Christine (2020). 'Instrumentalizing Religious Symbols. Anti-liberal Narratives in the US and Brazil,' in Anja Hennig and Mirjam Weiberg-Salzmann (eds.), Illiberal Politics and Religion in Europe and Beyond. Concepts, Actors, and Identity Narratives, Frankfurt a.M: Campus: 347–375.

Freistein, Katja, and Gadinger, Frank (2020). ‘Populist stories of honest men and proud mothers: A visual narrative analysis’, Review of International Studies, 46(2): 217–236.

Freistein, Katja, Gadinger, Frank and Unrau, Christine (2020). ‘From the Global to the Everyday: Anti-Globalization Metaphors in Trump’s and Salvini’s Political Language’, Global Cooperation Research Paper 24, Duisburg: Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

Gadinger, Frank/Simon, Elena (2019). Kalkulierte Ambivalenz, mobilisierte Ängste und volksnahe Inszenierung: Rechtspopulistische Erzählstrategien in Wahlkampagnen und Regierungspraxis, in: Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 29:1, 23-52,

Freistein, Katja, Gadinger, Frank and Unrau, Christine (2021). 'Häuser, Mauern und Grenzen: Rechtspopulistische Globalisierungserzählungen zwischen Bedrohungsszenario und Sicherheitsversprechen, ZIB Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen, 28:1 , 101–126.