The Pandemic and the Transition to New Political Communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended a lot of assumptions. We used to think that things like work location, physical proximity and functional spatiality were all fixed concepts. Remote work was considered a novelty and people were expected to gather together in the same space for organizational functions. Yes, some of that was already changing, with forward-minded activists and entrepreneurs developing collaborative platforms where work and communication could take place from anywhere with a signal. But mainstream society still saw this as a novelty.

The pandemic altered this by forcing us to consciously define, “essential” work, and the ruling class hasn’t done a very good job with its version of these redefinitions. From insisting that education (primary, secondary, and college/university) could not be moved into safer physical space to forcing dangerous situation onto retail and restaurant workers, they proved they do not take care of the workers they need and employ and instead use their very essentiality to force them into precarious workplaces.

This insistence on proximity, as we’ll call it, is also reflected in far-right populist political gatherings, from maskless Trump rallies (which will presumably re-start soon) to mob attacks on governmental spaces. It’s this trajectory — this growing insistence by those in financial power, or those seeking illegitimate political power, that we “show up,” that our bodies be there — that I want to examine by taking a closer look at the conversation about covid-19 and governance.

I’ll start with Professor Andrew S. Roe-Crines’s February 23 essay in The Conversation.  Roe-Crines uses the impact of the pandemic on British Parliamentary PMQs to express concern about the future of democracy, which he sees as reliant on (in my own words) a physical immediacy and spontaneity. He writes:

The impact of COVID on these rhetorical arena affects the ability of one of our key democratic norms to function – communication. Without communication (or rhetoric), there is no meaningful liberal democratic society or scrutiny of our political leaders. This is not to suggest our liberal democracy has ceased to function (indeed, its move into the virtual realm is a testament to its strength). However, the manner in which PMQs is currently functioning impedes not just scrutiny but also the ability of party leaders to lead their parliamentary parties.

I’ve included the whole paragraph because I want to dwell on the weirdness of it. The author recognizes that the move into virtual processes and gatherings is a testament to democracy’s strength, but believes, and goes on to articulate, that some essential part of political rhetoric is lost when crowds do not gather. There’s never really a global definition of what rhetoric is, but there’s an assumption about not being able to exercise the same quality of leadership absent physical immediacy.

Roe-Crines continues by saying that without an immediate crowd, leadership can’t be discerned: “The virtual conference cuts out a key measure of how much support a leader really has – the sound of the audience. Without that feedback, party leaders are left speaking into a camera in the hope that the audience accepts their arguments without really knowing if it does.” Of course the “audience” that is residents of the UK is very different from the “audience” one would be speaking to in PMQ. Plus, the whole argument is quite creepy, particularly when seen through a lens of ability, political and economic geography, and the actual danger of right-wing populism having less to do with it being populism and more to do with who is funding it.

I’m left to wonder why we wouldn’t consider new Q and A formats that would try to find the spontaneity and authenticity the author wants without requiring people to inhabit particular geophysical public space. “Gone are loud displays of support, or the need for the Speaker to regularly demand ‘order!’ . . . little to no interaction with the physical or virtual audiences of MPs.” Frankly, all of this seems like a logistical problem.

Which brings me to Aristotle. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to see and deploy the available means of persuasion in a given situation to win over your audience. This materialist and historicist definition is extremely pragmatic. Rhetoric so-defined isn’t damaged, undermined, or limited by the transition from in-person to virtual collective action. It just changes. It just needs a new set of methods.

Furthermore, if the initial argument is that lack of physical proximity undermines connection, Aline Burni’s observations about the role of empathy in leadership during COVID, and its connection to superior forms of political leadership (if your measuring stick is pandemic survival and functionality) found in states with female leaders, subsumes any argument about the breakdown of democracy due to space and distance regulation. The importance in political communication, particularly during crisis, lies in ability to connect rather than mobilize a proximate crowd. In fact, that connection is exactly what my client Accurate Append has offered during the pandemic: it has provided quality email append services to enable organizations and companies in touch to support those who support them.

Political scientist Aline Burni studies international and transnational cooperation at the German Development Institute. Burni writes: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, female leaders have been portrayed by the media as more competent and efficient in dealing with the outbreak. A study by the University of Reading has provided evidence that countries led by women entered lockdown significantly earlier. Consequently, these countries suffered less in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths, at least in the first wave.” Now, we don’t need to dwell too much on female leader X vs female leader Y — that kind of overly-analytic approach is not helpful. Burni is intellectually honest sticking to the first wave in this very recent article, and we know that there are always exceptions to any general conclusion, and we’re seeking general observations about leadership attributes.

Importantly, “. . . the study emphasises [that] the proactive attitude of females compared to male leaders (earlier lockdowns) that helped to avoid deaths” is a universalizable trait. There is also a plurality of often creative “crisis communication approaches” which Burni frames as opportunities for leaders to connect with constituents. The clincher: “In general, there is not one successful model of crisis communication. However, it appears that communication has been more effective when based on a balance between science, rationality and emotions simultaneously, especially when the leader expresses empathy.”

We know that people find ways to express empathy on conferencing platforms and constituent communication system, and that deep canvassing methods as well as streams of transparent and useful information (constantly accessible “news” from every level of government, delivered via tweets, for example) can even shape quantitative data gathering around communicated human needs. And some technologies can be empathetic.

Empathy seems far more important than physical proximity in exercising good leadership. The privileging of physical proximity is old world, assumes a level of material privilege, and is patriarchal in that it depends on control of the powerful over the proximity of others.

Empathy, the recognition that others have moral worth and consideration on par with one’s own, must include a literal, material “taking one where one is.” That makes egalitarian, equally-distributed communication technology essential for collective action and decision making, as well as just checking in on the well-being of constituents.