In 1980, political scientist Sidney Blumenthal coined a concept that is still with us because it makes perfect sense. He began with another term that had crystallized in a different field, that of “permanent revolution” advocated by Leon Trotsky. And from that idea, he theorized about the “permanent campaign”. The debut in the respective positions of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States and Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Britain marked the starting point in the practice of a political theory which over time has been applied to many more areas, communication and political marketing aside.
In short, the paradigm of the “permanent campaign” argues that politicians, parties and their electoral machines are not just self-promoting during the official campaign weeks. The process of “selling” the political “product” is permanent, constant and sustained over the classic four-year term. And technology helps this. In 1980 Reagan included his entire campaign communication team in the West Wing of the White House, to work closely with him to communicate with intent during the first four years in office and therefore continue working on (without waiting for the official campaign) his re-election.
Over the years, and in line with what sociologist John B. Thompson described as the era of “new visibility” where everyone (voluntarily and involuntarily; politicians and non-politicians)) is more exposed, looking to deliberately control the story oneself serves politicians of all colours more than ever.
And from here, a pertinent question that Professor María José Canel noted in one of her works of reference: “Does political communication communicate?”. A great question which most of us would venture from the outset to answer negatively, just as, a priori, an overwhelming majority of citizens today negatively answer a more general question: “Does politics communicate?” And the few of us that assume that it does communicate would say it does so quite badly and contributes to a distancing of citizens with regard to their representatives and institutions of reference. It is a starting point.
Why “can we not communicate”? The maxim is by Paul Watzlawick, one of the main authors of the theory of human communication and radical constructivism. He knew what he was talking about because it was clear that communication is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. And when we talk about politics, we are doing nothing but talk about communication. When we speak about politics, we are talking about interpersonal communication. And that is when we have more than one participant, and they interact with each other. For that, it is not necessary to say anything. Thus, in the dialogue between the politician and the citizen, messages are exchanged, information is given and received without the public representative (or aspiring public representative) opening their mouth. Right from the start, many positively or negatively condition our view (and the success of their proposals). By the time they talk the task is finished, one way or another. So when something goes wrong (and we must assume that it does) we’re not just talking about content. It is a collection of things. And it’s mostly a matter of harmony and coherence of the pack. That is, not to lose credibility when form and substance do not marry. When sending outdated messages is attempted by technology or marketing that may arise before the final result of communication, this may cause, if anything, even more frustration in the receiver.
There is one of those viral images that spread like wildfire on the Internet, where a young-but-no-longer-so Julio Iglesias points at the observer with his finger, with a most attractive lowering of the eyelid and a superimposed message such as “WhatsApp groups make you very nervous…” and ends with the essential “… and you know it.” The first sentence can be anything that generates identification or sarcasm, but the end “… and you know it” is the key. The meme is so useful and has succeeded so well on the network, that even El Corte Ingles used the formula to promote winter sales in 2014: “You deserve it … and you know it.” Well, when it comes to communicating, a version of this viral phenomenon should be applied as a universal maxim to political parties (with few honourable exceptions). And we could say loud and clear: “You communicate poorly … and you know it”.
They know but persist. And the worst thing is that they do it even with new technology. That is, that very often, political parties have embraced the latest technology using new formats to convey the same messages as always, even when outdated or with little or no regard for most receivers. Being on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or a thousand digital social networks to speak the same language as always in the best of cases, or at worst and more commonly to say nothing. A real waste of energy, time and money. For everyone. Them and the suffering citizens. And using a new technology to transmit outdated messages and old ways of thinking is a double waste. In politics, not only of time and money but also of credibility and appeal.
Co-director of the Master in Political and Institutional Communication, UPF-IDEC