Politics and Communication together, a new perspective on Democracy

The nature of the relationship between communication and politics raises problems in working in the fields of research and scientific thought. I, myself, find it difficult to pinpoint exactly where they diverge, but it is not an issue I choose to address when analysing political events and phenomena, especially objects and subjects of a “contemporary” nature. One example is Berlusconi and his twenty-year spell as a protagonist. Another is Matteo Renzi and his relationship with the electorate and his political party.

I really would have no idea how to address these questions by way of Politology as distinct from Communication, or vice versa. I am, of course, aware of the scientific importance of “defining”, of drawing the confines, the limitations of a word and the related concept. The de-finitude of the content and the container is an obvious requirement for the scientific community for gathering and discussing knowledge in a process of co-division or sharing. Since names stand for things, and things exist and change, appearing and disappearing because we give them a name, or we change it. I, therefore, understand, as a researcher, that a field of science and knowledge has to have boundaries to exist. This is why there has always been the need for a “fundamental” distinction between Political Science and Political Sociology. The very basis of every study on Politics is the politics itself. Political Science is the study of the decision making process and of the decision makers who act within the institutions. This is top-down Politics that affects society and individuals, and influences people in their decisions and points of view. Political Sociology on the other hand studies grass-roots Politics. Political participation, social movements and pressure groups. This, however, is a distinction that has become unreliable over time because of the difficulty in drawing hard and fast boundaries between institutions and society. Institutions, the places where decisions are made have become decentralised and at the same time have expanded. Localized and globalized, thus obliging the Political Scientist to dialogue with the Social Scientist, or, rather be master of both trades to understand and explain events. The confines, the de-finition or de-finitude of the political actors’ fields of political action are fluid and contiguous. In addition, “consensus” as a premise to a decision is not wholly dependent on what happens and what is decided on high – indeed, ever less so. Quite the contrary it takes shape and consistency from social and micro-social mediation, relationships, actions and actors who meet in their “everyday lives”. Decisions are implemented when they become part of the “shared reality” when they draw inspiration from – and have come to terms with – the common sense. Hence and not by chance “consensus” means shared sense.

As I express these considerations I realise that I, too, am at risk of talking about the “common sense” in a scientific context, instead of using a different language capable of de-fining the field I am dealing with and the issues I have to tackle. I have, however, become accustomed to dealing with cross-discipline contamination and language, appreciating and analyzing their persistence and continuity in my approach to politics which up to now has been from a prevalently territorial standpoint. This led me to experiment with different approaches and a variety of disciplines – history, economics and sociology – because the territory exemplifies and brings all these factors together. How else could such continuities of electoral response in certain defined areas of post WW2 Italy be explained independently of the changes in the party systems as well as in the economy and society? How, indeed, despite the decline of cleavages (and walls) that criss-cross our country, and Europe too? What could possibly explain the persistence of this territorially-based behavioural response devoid of any attempt to seek out factors that contribute to shaping and orienting society, such as the economy, culture, not to mention history and traditions, in addition, obviously to actions, actors and initiatives launched by institutions and seats of government.

This is why I am unable to make out and discern Political Science and Political Communication, and have been so for a number of years. In other words, I am unable to pursue my studies in politics, its actors and actions, its events and changes, being able to clearly discern the fields of Political Science, Political Sociology and Political Communication. To be even more precise, I find it hard to isolate the “independent variable” in the relationship that links politics, society and communication, and therein lies the problem as Giovanni Sartori warned those who would distinguish between the areas of Political Science and Political Sociology. This is especially true today of communication, which as Pierre Bourdieu put it is a “field” both common/shared and also contended by Political Science and Sociology. And why not Political Psychology and Political Anthropology? I would be hard put, today, to identify boundaries and there is a great temptation to simplify and say that Communication is Politics and vice-versa Politics is Communication, which certain, perhaps even many, fellow-scholars would define as trivialisation, a risk I would be willing to take.

Furthermore, in every main political research context (namely “co-divided/shared texts”) on Politics, Communication plays a major role, either as a dependent or independent variable, simply because it defies de-finitude.

One example is sufficient to illustrate the case in point because it is fundamental to Politics and Political studies, namely Democracy, especially one in the throes of rapid, radical change. Not only are we in Italy and elsewhere undergoing a critical phase amidst a variety of different types and models of representative democracy and a variety of different types and models of political parties, not to mention a variety of different types and models of communication and public opinion. A difficult phase spawned and accelerated by the transformations that have affected the model of representative democracy, its requisites and elements, that was predominant for many years. I refer, in the words of Bernard Manin, to “La démocratie du public” (“audience democracy”) which supplanted the twenty-year-long supremacy of “(mass) party democracy”. In his seminal book “Principes du gouvernement représentatif” (1995), political parties become progressively personalized to the point of being machines at the service of the leaders, mostly “one” person: the leader. Ideology and identity fade in favour of confidence (in the person). Organization and participation at territorial level are progressively eroded in favour of communication, television first. Political leaders and parties cultivate their image, hone their language and resort to political marketing. They make use of polls, opinion makers and communication gurus. The electorate becomes “the audience”, the viewers, and the vote becomes (more) fluid.

This model took root in Italy later than in other western democracies and when it did, it was discovered to be unique because of Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to enter politics. Media entrepreneur and publicity mogul with business interests that extend beyond Italy, his presence had far-reaching consequences on democracy, not only because of the conflict of interests he embodied or the role he took on of both cleavage and paradigm to all the other Italian political actors. Ally or adversary, each in their own way made use of the resources at their disposal in imitating his personalization, his use of the media and political marketing. It was inevitable that the area of the political spectrum with the strongest ties to the tradition of “party democracy”, namely the centre-left, was sluggish in catching up despite seeking to engage Berlusconi on his own terms. It followed that in an arena in which parties are highly personalised, or “personal” the centre-left always drifted towards the apparently “impersonal” and thus uncompetitive. Until, that is, 2014 when Matteo Renzi arrived on the scene and very quickly earned himself the title of “post Berlusconian” leader and sometimes even “Berlusconian”.

In recent years, however, “audience democracy” has been swift in changing, even in its most sacred beliefs. What used to be the domain of politics is now an arena where a progression of parties devoid of society and, therefore, leaders devoid of parties strut and fret their hour upon the stage directly interacting with the public on television. The credit of confidence between society and politics has run dry, helped on the way by the hardships caused by the economic crisis. Political marketing and Communication have therefore shifted their emphasis away from confidence to no confidence in others, be they leaders, parties or politicians…

This has fuelled the wave of populism that today is making itself felt, a tidal wave of people’s distrust eroding the ground beneath the feet of our political leaders as they, in turn, make use of the media to stir up popular (or “public”) indignation towards the other leaders and so ultimately towards themselves in a lose-lose negative endgame that is imperilling the entire framework of representative democracy.

For as broad and summary as this interpretation may be of the changes that have already taken place in our representative democracy, it is, I feel, adequate to validate my theory, namely the impossibility – or in any case the uselessness – of adopting an approach to Politics that fails to contemplate communication as an interpretative key equal in importance to the Politological and/or Sociological ones, also, or rather especially, in seeking to identify the independent variable of these transformations. It is difficult not to see how “audience democracy” has been radically altered by the transformation in the system of communication, first and foremost the peremptory advent of Internet, and, thence, the rapid and extensive spread of the social media as channels of political communication and participation.

Indeed, the availability of Internet has brought a highly favourable immediacy to movements that support causes outside Europe where its impact has been perceived as revolutionary (such as North Africa and the Middle East).

The “new media”, in Italy (and elsewhere), have made it possible for localised and peripheral social realities to link up outwith the “vertical” supervision of political subjects and traditional media. In so doing, they have empowered a great many people to become directly involved. Indeed, Internet has laid the foundations for an alternative model of political participation. In the meantime it has also laid the basis for an alternative form of democracy by way of “direct democracy”. This is the reason for its adoption by Italian comic Beppe Grillo and his Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) as a distinguishing factor between him and the political establishment of parties and parliament, the actors and institutions of representative democracy.

It should be said, however, that participation by way of the social media has not caused the downfall of the traditional media or of TV in particular. The reason for this is that while a growing sector of the population makes use of Internet, there is still a great many who do not – almost half of the population and a quarter of the electorate who rely on television as their only source of news. Who sets out to “win” an election or win over political consensus must use TV.

And so, between the Internet and TV, between old and new media, a close, ambivalent relationship has developed – a hybrid type of political communication that cuts across the confines of television, newspapers, Internet, Social media, and between the new and the old, mixing and exploiting them to a specific end that was explained very well by both Andrew Chadwick in terms of political communication and before him Nestor Canclini from an anthropological perspective. At the same time, talk is made of a “hybrid democracy”. It is subjecting “audience democracy” to radical change while retaining significant elements of it, albeit substantially reshaped (by and large for the worse).

To begin with, political parties turned into anti-party parties or non-parties. Anti-leaders like Beppe Grillo emerged to take the place of the leader. Matteo Renzi was the “head scrapper”. They act and react by means of both social and media initiatives. They are “political entrepreneurs” expert in distrust rather than trust, all in the name of a radical change that affects political parties in both ways, from the inside and from the outside.

This work is a rapid, loosely constructed presentation of changes in democracy, its principles and its actors following the patterns and reference points that I myself make use of not only in my university courses but also in my contributions/academic publications, in my research activities and in my conference speeches. For all its imperfections, I chose this method because it is the one I find best enables me to clarify the idea I have expressed from the very outset, namely the impossibility for me at least to perceive political communication as a dependent variable, a minor element subordinated to politics and to democracy, whether or not representative. It is simply not possible from my standpoint and in accordance with my approach.

It is a demand impossible to fulfil. How would one proceed to analyze the advent of Silvio Berlusconi, the break-in of Beppe Grillo and “his” M5S, and rise of Matteo Renzi?

I would even be willing to try reversing the process just as I do in class. In other words by re-reading and interpreting the way party models and democracy have changed, as a function of the shift in models and technology of communication. Here, though, suffice it to highlight just how impossible it would be to reduce communication to a dependent or even an intervening variable in political action and the political system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: