Mosse's Nationalization of the Masses: Politics as Drama

Written by Daniel Hummel on Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 8:06 AM


Politics as Drama: Mosse's Nationalization of the Masses

 

One of Nationalization of the Masses most enduring contributions is to evoke how the masses came to see politics as a “drama within which liturgical rites took place” (12). This dramatic element played out episodically in symbolic actions such as public festivals, and more permanently through the creation of special groups such as, in the case of Germany, gymnasts. In Mosse’s book, the dramatic element is present throughout – when he discusses myths, the popular works of Wagner, and the “political cult” that would eventually be embodied by the Nazi party.

Politics as drama was integral to what Mosse described as a “mass movement,” which was “an alternative to parliamentary democracy” (9). Politics as drama was based on ceremony, ritual, and emotion, and invited the masses to “worship themselves” and their struggle – against the ills of industrialization, among other forces – as the ultimate good.

Though not a major focus of Nationalization of the Masses, the limits of nineteenth-century liberalism – a.k.a. parliamentary democracy – are keenly felt in the book. What was it about traditional political theory, rationally constructed political systems, and democratic norms that so failed to capture the adherence and the imagination of the masses? Much of Mosse’s study explores the various ways leaders, cultural producers, and theorists provided an alternative to parliamentary democracy. In Mosse’s other works, including The Culture of Western Europe, he more explicitly explores the limits of liberal politics. Here, and in Masses and Man, he explores the competing alternative for nineteenth-century Germans.

Politics as drama receives a lot of attention today in democratic politics, if for no other reason than that the language of political leaders and campaigns is now focused on building “narratives” to supply meaning to campaigns. New York Times op-eds analyze campaign “narrative strategies” and a major architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 winning election, David Axelrod, is praised as realizing that the “modern campaign” is “about a more visceral, more personal narrative.” Donald Trump’s campaign, from his dramatic slogan “Make America Great Again” to the unending narratives that swirled around both him and Hillary Clinton, has thrown the narrative analysis into high gear.

This is all to say that it seems Mosse, though writing of a different time and place, put his finger on the insatiable need for the masses to possess a narrative, and that the parliamentary system (or, in the United States, the presidential system) has had times of difficulty in supplying a compelling narrative. The rationalism of the eighteenth century, best represented by the liberal-parliamentary system, faces its most significant challenge in the romanticism of the nineteenth century. If liberalism has had a unifying narrative – a dramatic plot at the center of its politics – it is that of progress: an optimistic belief that through good politics the future would be better. This belief has sustained liberal politics, but it has often failed to grip the masses. This confrontation between rationalism and romanticism, liberalism and reaction, is at the heart of much Mosse’s work, and sets the backdrop for Nationalization of the Masses.

In the twenty-first century, rationalism and romanticism do not retain their exalted positions. However, similar struggles have ensued. There remains a pull between reason and emotion-based politics, pragmatic and ideological worldviews, at the heart of the conflicts in democratic countries, both in Western Europe and beyond. By understanding politics as drama – that politics has an inherently dramatic element that cannot be reasoned away or compartmentalized – we not only gain an insight into modern campaign strategies, but into how the masses of the nineteenth century were not so different from the masses of the twenty-first.

Daniel Hummel is the Postdoctoral Fellow of History and Public Policy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.

 

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