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How The 21st Century Killed Old-Fashioned Elections

With the rise of social networking, fake news and changing psychologies, political parties have little use now for traditional campaigns.

Today's elections are something new and unknown
Today's elections are something new and unknown
Mario Riorda*

-Essay-

BUENOS AIRES — It took just 25 years into the new century to kill off the electoral campaign.

Election campaigns used to seek shock and creativity. The ability to stand out and make an impact was prized. These were festivals of communication. But media are now rewarding persistence and enduring positions. Political identities are not as easily forged, even when spending big sums, and those those that do have staying power, in the medium and long term, can end up working as counter-identities.

Electoral processes used to have one relevant function: as debates on future policies. This is no longer so clear. At best they have become emotional plebiscites for incumbents who themselves echo their opponents and their terminology. Campaigns are replete with "terminators' who mete out justice as a spectacle, using an entirely subjective discourse. As if sifting through evidence, rivals dissect the past rather than discussing the future. In modern electioneering, democratic dialogue, empathy and understanding have given way to hostilities against a villainous opposition. Opponents have become nothing but a candidate's nemesis.

In this setting, prejudiced and brazen postures are dominant and, with the demise of "political correctness," prejudices can be aired, cost-free. Radicalism does not just gain ground; it wins elections

In this setting, prejudiced and brazen postures are dominant.

There used to be talk of "permanent" campaigning, with the emphasis always on the short-term. Day-to-day governance would thus become an ongoing opportunity to win votes and renew majorities. That meant governments needed a constant flow of good news and positive stats. Today, there is no longer a single agenda and multiple trends are digested before campaigning starts. Voters read and see what they want, and choose their media anticipating what these will report.

The main issue in this setting, as the Spanish academic Ismael Crespo argues, is merely to exist and fight liquid opinions. Messages today are ephemeral and will age fairly fast. Their permanence in the communicational space is inevitably fleeting, and political action is rather linked to appearance and visibility. This is a two-way dynamic of course: politicians need to be seen by the public, and citizens make it their daily business to air their complaints.

Ours is the time of pseudo-events that seek to become communicational events regardless of their political contribution. Far from being constructive proposals, their importance is strictly to be useful in themselves. Politics thus becomes a daily regime of competing pseudo-events that are as inconsequential as they are divisive, and as intensely debated as the biggest policy issues.

The competing "events' of politics are just as inconsequential as they are divisive — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The target of these developments is potential supporters. The aim is to maintain tribal cohesion, stimulating identity traits and fanning passionate loyalties even if these clash with the democratic consensus and its norms. Anything goes (violence, humiliations, transgressions) when defending the group identity, including — needless to say — lying. Indeed, the truth becomes increasingly disputed and can barely compete with "authentic" versions of itself like post-truth, or even plain fiction. It would be difficult here to cite rationality as an explanation of electoral conduct.

In adventures, the guarantees of normalcy are suspended as the philosopher Fernando Savater says. Daring electoral adventures are those that win most media coverage and public attention. These will prompt "spasms' of support or controversy, which parties find more useful, and cheaper, than the solid campaign strategies of old.

Communication planning that would bank on television and graphics is now history. It used to be predictable: If you spent lots of money, you could expect big effects. Not anymore, though paradoxically parties are still spending as much on conventional media while boosting spending on content positioning in social media. Social media, one should note, have neither time nor regulations but a price. They may be the most visible electoral medium. They also lack replicable patterns or models except perhaps for one: authenticity, which is practically a commodity today.

Social media, one should note, have neither time nor regulations but a price.

Criticisms of negative campaigning are also a thing of the past. Campaigns have become adversarial exercises responding to public disgust, and are no longer the legitimating rites of democracy. While they do assure the transfer of power, political systems are increasingly heaving in their wake for the intensity of the rejections and discord generated. At best they legitimize winners — for a while.

Nor do modern elections necessarily reward or punish politicians anymore for failing to honor pledges. The French philosopher Bernard Manin says that in running for office, politicians know they will inevitably face unforeseen conditions, which makes them reluctant to firmly tie themselves to detailed or specific programs. When contingencies arise, randomness imposes its rules on events.

And yet, there remains a very powerful triple norm in predicting electoral movements, regardless of pledges: Ideology, tribalism and prejudices. With these, classic election campaigns may be declared dead. What we have now is something else, with entirely different effects.

*The author is a political communications expert at the Universidad Austral in Buenos Aires and president of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Investigadores en Campañas Electorales (Latin American Association of Electoral Campaign Researchers, ALICE)

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