PPE CENTENARY LECTURE: The Power of Narratives in Nation Building

Historians and social scientists have long emphasized how the narratives of past wars can reactivate wounds or, conversely, heal minds and foster reconciliation. They consider that the framing of memories and the selective recall of facts about the causes of conflicts, the deployment of violence, and the resolution of disputes can profoundly influence beliefs and representations. These narratives can take many different forms, from founding myths to divisive expressions of hatred. In the context of nation‐building, one of the frequently observed narratives concerns the existence, real or imagined, of a common enemy.

But what is the real impact of these historical narratives? Do they change opinions and behaviors in a causal and meaningful way? Or are they rather ex‐post rationalizations and window‐dressing explanations of economic and political processes that involve deeper stakes and vested interests?

This lecture sheds light on these questions using quantitative empirical methods. Specifically, we investigate how the spread of the Lost Cause narrative‐‐ a revisionist and racist retelling of the history of the American Civil War (1861‐1865) ‐‐ shifted opinions and behaviors toward reunifying the country and racially discriminating African Americans. Our findings suggest that reconciliation was promoted by replacing the North/South cleavage with a Black/White cleavage.