«Sergio Fabbrini Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the LUISS ...»
If television has created a context favorable to the personalization of politics, the development of commercial networks has magnified its personalization effect. Commercial television networks know how to address a mass audience with simplified and personalized language. The growth of commercial television networks has thus increased the process of simplification and personalization of political messaging. If in early years commercial television used an expositional ambiguity in reporting politics (Edelman 1988), this ambiguity has disappeared as of late. First in the United States and then in Europe, commercial television has become politicized, promoting some candidates and opposing others, setting the agenda or priorities of public debate. Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi were among the first entrepreneurs to understand the political potential of commercial and popular television networks. However, if Murdoch operated as a television tycoon focused on constructing the political show for others (in tune with his interests), Silvio Berlusconi did that for himself. As the indisputable founding father of Italian tele-democracy, Silvio Berlusconi made political use of the cultural context his media empire contributed to creating, a cultural context favorable to a politics of personality, not ideology or political program.
I. 2. Berlusconi as the epitome of personalization This is why, to an unprecedented extent, contemporary democratic politics has become increasingly centered on leaders rather than on parties (Masciulli, Molchanov and Knight 2009). Of course, the post-WWII era was not devoid of popular leaders, but they were generally the expression of collective entities (parties, movements) or at least collective projects (with the significant exception being Charles De Gaulle who invented his own party and created his own collective project). Today, it is the leader who identifies the party more than vice versa. The politician has become the message (Castells 2009). But, if leaders matter so much, then the construction of leadership has ended up being the core business of tele-democracy. However, the success of the strategy of construction of leadership depends also on the ability of the leader to bond with the audience of viewers. The leaders are constructed but they, in turn, have to assist in being constructed.
The successful leaders have been those with a particular talent for creating an emotional tie between themselves and those viewing them through the media. Some time ago and with reference to the United States, Edelmann (1977) talked of a language game, a linguistic competition, as a defining characteristic of video-politics: catchy language triumphs because it is able to get across an expected message or to create an emotional tie between the leader and the viewers. In line with movie or television actors, leaders seek to please many and to displease few. They frequently choose to adopt politically ambiguous language so as to permit each group to recognize in it whatever message they would like to find. After the end of the Cold War, such ambiguity also became common in Europe. The history of the last twenty years displays many cases of a leader of the Right employing a language that may also appeal to the Left and vice versa.
Rhetoric is not the only matter in television-centered politics. The leader’s entire life becomes a political affair. Politics as show-biz has obscured the fundamental liberal distinction between public and private. As politics orbits around the leader, every aspect of that person contributes to politics. Just like movie actors or television characters, the private life of a leader has become an asset in his/her public profile. When leaders are no longer identified with a political mission (or with a political ideology), what makes them intelligible to a mass audience is their private life and their personality. In the era of politics as show-biz, the disingenuous public presentation of the leader has turned into a kind of systemic imperative, rather than being the reflection of an individual pathology.
It was in the United States that the leader’s private life first became an issue of public debate. What was unthinkable during the Kennedy years of the 1960s has become common since the Clinton years in the 1990s (Ginsberg 2007). Europe has quickly followed suit. In this regard, Silvio Berlusconi was a formidable pathfinder in making his private life a resource to promote his public role. He certainly did not remain alone in this practice, if one considers leaders as politically diverse as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy. In the era of politics as show-biz, the king no longer has two bodies (Kantorowicz 1997): both bodies are displayed for public view.
So as not to backfire, however, this process presupposes quite consistent control of the media system by the leader and his/her acolytes. The personalization of leadership aims to recompose two spheres that were in the past separated: the sphere of politics and the sphere of information. In a majority of cases, such re-composition has implied a tight relationship of complicity between the leader in question and the owner of a major television network or popular news magazine (as in the case of the intense relationship between Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron’s circle in United Kingdom, or between Murdoch and Tea Party leaders in the United States). In Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi, the two spheres were made coincident, not simply recomposed. Benefiting from the dramatic lack of any conflict of interest regulations (Fabbrini 2011), since his entry into politics in 1994, the television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi could transform his media power into political power, making his media company the basis for a new political party (Go Italy, the first personal party in an established parliamentary system).
In this regard, Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership epitomized the dilemma of the politicization of private life. He powerfully promoted his leadership through the politicization of his private achievements, substituting the political content of a public debate with his own personal achievements. Berlusconi’s persona was the message of Berlusconi’s personal party: “trust me because I can make Italy as rich as I did myself” or “I can make Italy successful as I did the Milan soccer club”. However, this project required his personal systematic control of public communication. The more public his life became, the more necessary it was to control what part of his private life arrived to the public via television screens. As the owner of three private national television networks, Silvio Berlusconi was able to transform his personal message into a political weapon, winning a parliamentary majority in 1994 (which lasted less than one year), another in 2001 (which lasted until the end of the legislature in 2006) and finally again in 2008 (after the collapse of the center-left Prodi government that emerged from the elections of 2006) which lasted until November 2011. On becoming prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi had the additional opportunity to control the other three public television networks (RAI), given that the government has significant power to nominate the RAI’s administrative council and to control the parliamentary commission which supervises RAI’s activities.
From 2001 to 2011, Silvio Berlusconi thus had the power to control six of the seven national television networks for eight years in a ten-year period. Because such impressive control of the national media could not neutralize alternative (in particular judicial) information on his private life, Silvio Berlusconi used his control on national televisions to de-legitimize independent bodies such as the magistrates or newspapers and other critics. In sum, the personal talent of Silvio Berlusconi to behave as a movie celebrity and his quasi-full control of private and public television networks made possible a formidable process of personalization of Italian politics. However, Berlusconi’s Italy has not been an exception. The central role that television has come to play in political communication has fostered a similar process of personalization also in other established democracies, although to a lower degree.
II. Personalization of the electoral process
For some scholars (Ginsberg 1986 was among the first) the central role that the means of mass communication have come to occupy in all established democratic systems is the outcome of a historical process of demolition of the barriers that previously hindered political communication.
This historical process led to the development of a marketplace of information in which public opinion is expressed and organized (Sartori 2003).
institutionalization of public opinion that was substantially shaped by the interests and the culture (i.e. by the ideology) of the dominant classes and groups. This, in turn, prompted a search by the subordinated classes and groups for more adequate strategies to counterbalance the power of their opponents. Protest was the most elementary counterbalancing strategy, but frequently the least effective. Other strategies were pursued, especially by the industrial working class. In the US experience, those groups (but also ethnic and cultural minorities and single-issue groups) constructed alliances with sectors of the dominant class that were willing to support their interests.
In the European experience, the strategy was to form mass political parties, by means of which major sectors of the industrial working class succeeded in entering the marketplace of opinions in an organized way, promoting their interests, their culture and their ideology with their own resources. Thus, for at least a century and a half, organization, alongside with political mobilization, proved to be the most potent instrument in the dissemination of information by which subordinated classes and groups sought to influence public opinion in their favor. By means of this type of organization, those social groups were able to maximize their main resource: their numbers (Rokkan 1970).
Mass organization was thus a formidable instrument of communication by which parties representing the working classes succeeded in creating a counter-weight to the economically dominant classes. Mass organization proved such an effective instrument that it was soon adopted by numerically inferior but economically dominant classes. By means of the well-known phenomenon of contagion from the Left, brilliantly expounded several decades ago by Duverger (1961), the forces of the political Right also adjusted to the new conditions of political competition, even if this adoption rarely produced results comparable to those achieved by their rivals. If the parties never acquired a mass organization in the United States, all the main European political parties re-emerging or constructed after the end of WWII had the features of mass parties.
The transformation of mass communication that has occurred in most western democracies since the 1960s has radically changed the structure of electoral competition. The diffusion of new technologies (television has become especially crucial in the outcomes of US presidential elections since 1960) has altered not only the style of political communication, but also the power relations between the organizations operating in the electoral market. The new technologies of mass communication have eroded a political and electoral competition traditionally built around strong mass parties. With new technologies, it is no longer necessary to deploy a mass organization in order to diffuse political information. Thanks to these technologies, the ability to engage in mass communication is no longer an exclusive prerogative of those political elites leading a mass organization. Instead, it has also become accessible to those elites that were historically bereft of such organizations, as long as they can muster the resources (financial, first of all) necessary to control the vast circuit of media communication. By means of the broadcast media, the electronic media, and television, it has become possible to reach a vast audience without needing to go from door to door to gain new supporters.
In the United States, this has brought about a simplification of the electoral campaign, and its personalization. But Europe has also witnessed the gradual erosion of the mass organizations of the post-WWII political parties. Combined with the de-structuring of the traditional (socioeconomic and ideological) cleavages that marked European politics in the Cold War era, television has made it possible to address a mass audience without the bulwark of a mass organization.
However, unlike the propaganda of the party activist that was of an ideological nature (aimed at diffusing the world view of that party), communication by television has instead acquired a personal nature. On television, world views do not convince, whereas a political leader may. If the main European parties have tried to adapt to this change, the case among Italian parties has been different. Made redundant by the end of the Cold War (which removed the ideological justification of the Communist vs. anti-Communist cleavage) and submerged by judicial allegations of corruption and misbehaviour, the Italian post-WWII mass parties system, constituted by powerful mass organizations, collapsed altogether between 1991-1993. That void represented a formidable window of opportunity for Silvio Berlusconi, who could promote a new party model based on his television networks.
II. 2. Capital-intensive electoral technologies In addition to television, other electoral technologies have also led to the diminishing importance of massive party organizations. It is no longer necessary to deploy hundreds of thousands of activists to contact people in their working or living environments in order to find out what they think. Polling has changed this. Since the end of WWII, the opinion poll has become a formidable electoral technology by which a political actor (in particular a candidate or a group) can obtain the information necessary to design a potentially victorious electoral strategy, e.g. what issues will be raised, what is the strength of my opponents, who are the main groups supporting particular issues (Corbetta & Gasperoni 2007). The practice of polling the electorate has become so widespread since 1945 as to leap from electoral campaigning to policy making (Lathrop 2003).