For an upcoming university unit, I have two books as prescribed core reading: An Introduction to Political Communication by Brian McNair, and Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage by Stephen Cushion and Richard Thomas. While I have, I’d say, a reasonable knowledge and understanding (as well as some strong opinions) on those topics – I have, obviously, written (much less professionally) on them myself – it’s always enlightening to read more about the things you think you know. Even if many of the conclusions match previous ones, the difference each time is perspective.
I am about 70 pages into McNair’s book and it’s what you’d expect from the title – an introduction to the tumultuous realm that is political communication. So far, the focus has been on the role of the media, analysing liberal democracy and the effect the increasing mediatisation of the political sphere has had on it. While many of the concepts and ideas are familiar if you’ve studied/read up on politics and the media as an industry, there was an interesting one I’d never heard before that seems so common sense I felt a bit silly not coming to this conclusion myself.
“For Jean Baudrillard, the proliferation of empty spectacle and image in contemporary political discourse is itself a cause of the phenomenon of ‘the silent majority’ (1983) or the perceived deficit of citizens’ engagement in politics which is an oft-lamented feature of many capitalist societies. Through increased exposure to political marketing techniques, citizens have become consumers of politics, but not active producers of it.” (Introduction to Political Communication (6th Edition) (p. 48)).
It is no secret or great controversy to say that politics, particularly in the United States but also Australia to an extent, has become more of a spectacle to be observed, with characters and scandals, than an actual system of governance we should probably take an active interest in. What was new, to me at least, was the phrase of the ‘silent majority’ having any purposeful meaning. In modern political discourse, generally on the ‘right’, the silent majority is used to refer to the many who fear to voice their opinions openly, fearing vicious rebuke or censorship, and wait until elections to prove their numbers.
Quite often, said ‘silent majorities’ have incredibly high-profile commentators (Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones come to mind), leaving the ‘majorities’ up for debate on many issues, but the ‘silent’ part a bit of a joke. So for many the phrase has meant little, or even a rather mocking term. But while, in the context of individual issues like religion, migrants, privatisation, etc., ‘silent majority’ may be an irrelevant phrase, it does have a sound basis in reality. The only problem is, it is, quite ironically, being used very much for marketing purposes as a buzzword, something for these disenfranchised people to consume while believing they are different to the ‘mainstream’ of political thought.
During the 2016 election, as soon as Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton, I knew Trump would win – solely because of the theatrics and rhetoric. Forget reality – Trump was anti-establishment; for the people; he told it like it is; and would run the country like his businesses. All because he said so,
Going back to reality – he is part of the establishment; he’s only in it for himself; he, a reality TV star host, told it the way that would skyrocket his publicity; and the country, like his previously bankrupted businesses, is spiralling downwards. It was media, marketing, and rhetoric that sold the image of Trump being not of the regular political players. Again, the irony is palpable.
Similarly here in Australia, Pauline Hanson and her crumbling One Nation party managed to scrape their way into Parliament using the same tactics. Once in position, the vast majority of the time Hanson has voted with the Coalition government. Occasionally dissenting, and occasionally spouting controversial nonsense, she always crawls back to her silent toeing of the line. One Nation voters, often also fans of Trump and anti-EU sentiment in the UK, believe themselves to be the silent majority in their opposition of Islam, the ‘radical cultural Marxists’, and other such terrifying words.
In reality, they are indeed a silent majority – along with many other disenfranchised parts of the population, people who feel they have no real say or effect on the political sphere at all. Rather than looking at the system itself as the issue, however – capitalism, liberalism, a stacked media, etc. – they validate previous or are introduced to new prejudices as they are told external factors are to blame. Capitalism isn’t the problem, it’s those greenie fools; it’s not the devastating cuts to the public healthcare system, it’s “illegal” refugees stealing hospital beds; it’s not property developers and investors that are causing and exacerbating the housing affordability crisis and homelessness (the latter also affected by cuts to mental healthcare), it’s reckless young people who believe they’re entitled to… their basic human rights, I guess.
They only get halfway – they can pinpoint the real issues in society, but then come to radically incorrect and ignorant conclusions as to why that is. Rather than actively participating in and engaging with political discourse and ideas, people would rather consume (via the media) a manufactured message. A message that very much keeps them disenfranchised and increasingly marginalised, which only continues the increasingly savage cycle.
It’s a cycle we have to try and stop, starting with active participation in politics, not just mindlessly consuming it.
Liked this? Read Disavowing Trumpism Now
Previous piece: How Is FaceApp Different to US Apps?