Political Science and Political Communication: Straddling

The question is: are political scientists and scholars in the field of political communication, especially in Italy, making good and reciprocal use of the knowledge they produce? So far, generally speaking, the answer has to be negative. But what counts in my opinion is how one gets to this answer, because in the process several good points can be made and several suggestions for future positive encounters can emerge. All this, however, may be more effectively argued starting from few sparse reflections on selected past events.

Short premise.

Unnoticed by many (then and even now) the first recognition of the importance of political communication in the realm of politics and political science was very indirectly made by Otto Kirchheimer in a very influential and highly controversial paper written in 1965 and published posthumously in 1966. All the changes that were leading from class and confessional parties to catch-all parties had been made possible by the transformation in the environment due to the appearance of television and this new type of communication. The “expressive function” of political parties (p. 189) could no longer remain in their hands and the “strengthening of top leadership groups” (p. 190) inevitably meant that they were to control, if not monopolize, the political communication of their parties. Admittedly, I am somewhat stretching Kirchheimer’s interpretation. I do so for two reasons: first, in order to counteract the large flow of studies that followed to whom Kirchheimer could not react and, second, because the great majority of those studies aimed at analyzing and assessing how much left-wing and, less so, denominational parties had retained of their class and confessional representation.

It has taken some time before the analysis of political parties as actors in the communication process reappeared. Not so much in passing, in Italy, as I have already recalled (Pasquino 1983, now 1985) because it is an extremely interesting example, it was Giorgio Galli who perceptively discovered the importance of political communication through television. In the early 1960s the appearances at Tribuna Politica of a distinguished, well-dressed, articulated politician, leader of the Communist Party was what Americans today would call a game changer. In a way those television appearances significantly contributed to a less negative view of the PCI. But, of course, at the time there was no student of political science and/or political communication immediately to assess the phenomenon. To put everything in perspective, one must recall that in the USA two giants had opened the field of research in political communication: political scientist Harold Lasswell with his studies on political propaganda and political sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld with his studies on electoral communication and behavior. A landmark book (Deutsch 1963) imaginatively connecting the activity of governing with the ability to communicate had been published few years before Kirchheimer’s article. American political science was participating in the construction and enhancement of the field of political communication, even exploring its contribution to political development (Pye 1963), but those studies were and remained for some time forerunners with few followers.

Neither European nor Italian political science in its infancy could, of course, take part in those innovative intellectual processes. In Italy, the task could not be undertaken by Norberto Bobbio, a political philosopher, nor by Giovanni Sartori, whose main themes were democracy, political parties, and institutions. Thus, the subsequent generation of Italian scholars worked much on the topics defined by their esteemed teachers while the third generation has added the study of public policies. Only in the past ten years or so some Italian political scientists have been willing and capable of making significant contributions to the field and its growing literature. On its part, political communication in all its various forms (see Mazzoleni 2015 and Campus 2004) has acquired a greater role in explaining many, though by no means all, contemporary political phenomena. What still seems to be lacking is the ability, perhaps, even the willingness to straddle the two fields.

Parties, institutions, leaders.

In the next few pages I make some remarks on how and why “straddling”, though a challenging exercise, will improve the explanation of major political phenomena. I will do so by taking into consideration some of the most recent analyses and evaluating how much the instruments of political communication have contributed to the framing and satisfactorily analyzing the topic and, if not, how much could and should still be done.

I will focus my synthetic remarks, all worthy of more extensive treatment, on parties, institutions, and leaders. For better and (not or) worse, these three actors continue to dominate the political scene. Parties have changed significantly, but they have not disappeared in any political system. They still retain and demonstrate a tremendous amount of organizational and strategic adaptability. Institutions provide the framework within which parties compete and leaders emerge. Technically, the institutions are the rules of the game. When they change, the game changes and the actors will have to adjust. Institutional and constitutional reforms are not an Italian discovery. They have been made in many political systems usually with less fanfare and more substance than in Italy. Finally, political and institutional leaders are responsible for the structuring and functioning both of the parties and the institutions. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the way the three actors work, change, have success or are defeated is significantly affected by the way they communicate and, so to speak, are communicated.

The most important transformation of some, by no means all, contemporary political parties has been characterized as the emergence, not necessarily the consolidation, of personal/personalist parties. The phenomenon, more widespread and more visible in post-1994 Italy, has been intelligently highlighted and analyzed by Mauro Calise (2000 and 2006). The transformations of Italian parties identified by Calise have since then affected profoundly all of them in a way that seems ubiquitous and irreversible: a triumph (the term used by Pasquino 2015a). Focusing exclusively on the function of political communication, Mancini (2015, p. 138) comes to the conclusion that contemporary, perhaps not only Italian, parties have become “frail and flexible”, “redundant for a large part of traditional expressive functions and in part also for the organizational ones”. Nevertheless, he recognizes that parties perform other important activities that no other organization could undertake.

Mancini’s subtitle is both suggestive and misleading. “The end of the grand narratives” has to be taken as the inevitable consequence of the disappearance of mass parties in Italy. Elsewhere (Pasquino 2015b), I have focused on the disappearance of political cultures in Italy, those cultures that shaped practically all Italian parties and survived with them until the 1992-1994 collapse. It was the parties’ inability to redefine and bring up to date their narratives that decisively influenced their decline. But it is misleading to believe that the end of the great narratives was the cause of the end of mass parties. It is the other way around. Moreover, since Mancini himself has significantly contributed to the literature on the beginning of Berlusconi’s “minor” narrative (on his overall trajectory see the excellent set of articles in Amoretti 2014), it is appropriate to emphasize that the post-1994 period has witnessed the appearance of narratives tied, no more to political parties, but to political leaders. In a way, Berlusconi’s sad decline is also due to his inability to revamp what he called Una storia italiana. In the opposite camp, the spectacular absence of a viable narrative is one, not the least important, of the elements contributing to the demise of the Olive Tree coalition (1996-1998). Finally, while one may not like Matteo Renzi’s storytelling, brilliantly and critically analyzed by Sofia Ventura (2015), it is impossible to deny so far its effectiveness in convincing the voters and in influencing the majority of media operators. But how much of Renzi’s success is the product of his ability to narrate and how much is due to political and institutional factors?

Elsewhere, especially in parliamentary democracies, there are very few cases of important and significantly successful narratives. In fact, Tony Blair’s New Labour is probably the only case to be taken in consideration when attempting any comparison with Renzi’s. Of course, a lesson not to be forgotten by political communication scholars, presidential republics are totally different institutional and political contexts. But even in the USA not all the victorious Presidents have provided an original narrative that can be considered the decisive element for their electoral success. The key word here is “context”. It would be difficult to explain (and even to envisage) Berlusconi’s irruption into the Italian political “theatre” without the opportunities offered by the new electoral law. In all likelihood, Renzi would be running for a second term as mayor of Florence, if Bersani had not generously conceded to him, first, the opportunity to challenge the Party Secretary in the primaries meant to designate the candidate to the office of head of government and, second, even a run-off between the two best-placed candidates. The two steps allowed Renzi’s supporters to obtain a lot of visibility, to organize their campaign and to strengthen their networks.

My contention is that, unless one has acquired in-depth knowledge of the context in which significant political events take place, it will be somewhat inappropriate and in some cases wrong to believe that those events are due to factors related to political communication. It is in the political space provided by the institutions (and the Constitution) that one will be able better to understand whether and how much the media, even the new media, have contributed (“caused” is almost never the correct verb to use), for instance to the decline of political parties, to their transformation into personal parties, to the launching of socio-political narratives, to the ascendancy of storytelling. To a well-rounded explanation, political science may offer additional important contributions from a methodological perspective. The best way political scientists have to evaluate the robustness of their explanations, generalizations, and theories is by resorting to the comparative method.

Making a long, though extremely interesting and instructive, story short, the research questions are very simple: have personal parties appeared elsewhere, is the personalization of politics characterizing other democratic political systems, how many political leaders and in which political systems have shaped narratives and have resorted to intense activity of storytelling?

The available material on the personalization of politics (Karvonen 2009, p. 106) does not find any “general trend”. “There are many indications that persons have become more prominent in both electoral and executive politics in several [not all and not even the majority] countries”. However, “parliamentary politics is still much more about parties than it is about individual politicians”. Strikingly, Karvonen adds that parliamentary politics “will probably remain so for decades to come”. If, on the contrary, Italian politics seems to be or to become more personalized than the politics of the large majority of contemporary parliamentary democracies, then both political scientists and political communication scholars ought to provide a convincing explanation. It will not suffice to state that Italy is an exception. All exceptions have to be understood and explained in the light of existing generalizations and theories with the purpose of redefining both. Quite clearly, this exercise cannot be satisfactorily performed by political scientists not interested in political communication nor by political communication scholars who do not know enough political science.

The relationships between personalization and presidentialization are complex and multiple. Both processes have their specificities (that I cannot explore here). Still, the conclusions by Poguntke and Webb (2005) to their edited volume are somewhat striking. I suspect that the authors felt compelled to look for and find all possible features of presidentialization. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Obama, Rajoy, to take four quite distinct, but all important, cases would feel comfortable if “accused” of having presidentialized their party politics or their executive power. The book edited by Poguntke and Webb was published in 2005 and the leaders I have referred to have all acquired and wielded executive power after 2005. It is possible to agree with the editors’ statement that “presidentialization is more than a mere catchword used by journalists and political analysts alike to capture the leadership style of specific (‘strong’) leaders” (2005, p. 352) and, at the same time, to stress that, contrary to their generalization, presidentialization has proved not to be an irresistible trend. Some may wonder at the conceptual clarity of the chapter by Fabbrini on the USA entitled “The Semi-Sovereign American Prince”. Others may want to have a second closer look at the Table valiantly drafted by the two editors with reference to the Executive face and the Party face of presidentialization (pp. 338-339) only to discover that for what concerns Italy the process of presidentialization has been highly positive on all indicators: shift of intra-executive power to benefit of the leader; increasing autonomy of executive leader vis-à-vis party; shift in intra-party power to benefit of leader; increasing autonomy of party leader from intra-party power holders. Were this the case, the entire Italian debate on how to strengthen the head of government would have to be considered just a game Italian politicians (and some political scientists) play, if not a joke. A limited attention is given to the differences in the structures of electoral and political competition and in the institutional frameworks. And, unfortunately, no mention is made of the likely increase of the visibility of executive and party leaders and of their ability to control and shape the flow of political communication.

Tentative conclusions, not a summary.

What is most certain is that contemporary politics is and will be profoundly affected by changes in the field of communication. In a way politics has always been about the ability to communicate (and persuade), but, of course, also about the capability to organize and to decide. The constraints and the opportunities offered by the old, new and very new means of political communication have had and continue to have an impact on parties, institutions, and leaders. The combination of the knowledge mustered by political science and by political communication studies appears to be a condition sine qua non for a satisfactory and comprehensive understanding of the most important political phenomena. Though, fortunately for all those who study politics, many transformations occur that make politics always lively and exciting; much will be lost by those who underestimate the joint contributions of political science and political communication. Even more so in Italy.

References

  • Amoretti, F. (2014) (ed.). The HyperReality of Italian Democracy. The Berlusconi Years: 1994-2014. ComPol Comunicazione Politica. XV (3).
  • Calise, M. (2000). Il partito personale. Roma-Bari: Laterza.
  • Calise, M. (2006). La Terza Repubblica. Partiti contro presidenti. Roma-Bari: Laterza
  • Campus, D. (2004). Comunicazione politica in N. Bobbio, N. Matteucci, G. Pasquino (a cura di), Dizionario di Politica (pp. 134-137). Torino: UTET
  • Deutsch, K.W. (1963). The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
  • Karvonen, L. (2009). The personalization of politics. A study of parliamentary democracies. Colchester: ECPR Press.
  • Kirchheimer, O. (1966). The Transformation of the Western European Party Systems, in J. LaPalombara e M. Weiner (ed.) Political Parties and Political Development (pp. 177-200). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Mancini, P. (2015). Il post partito. La fine delle grandi narrazioni. Bologna: Il Mulino.
  • Mazzoleni, G. (2015) (a cura di). The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Pasquino, G. (1983). Mass media, partiti di massa e trasformazioni della politica. Il Mulino, XXXII (luglio-agosto), 559-579, ora in La complessità della politica (87-109). Roma-Bari: Laterza.
  • Pasquino, G. (2015a) Italy: the Triumph of Personalist Parties, in G. Pasquino e M. Valbruzzi, A Changing Republic. Politics and Democracy in Italy (pp. 159-175). Novi Ligure: Epoké.
  • Pasquino, G. (2015b) (a cura di). La scomparsa delle culture politiche in Italia. Paradoxa, IX, Ottobre-Dicembre.
  • Poguntke, T. e Webb, P. (a cura di) (2005). The Presidentialization of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pye, L. W. (1963) (a cura di) Communications and Political Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Ventura, S. (2015) Renzi & Co. Il racconto dell’era nuova. Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino.

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