Political communication in the age of austerity


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Presentation given at the ECPR, September 2013.

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Political communication in the age of austerity

  1. 1. Political communication in the age of austerity Nick Anstead ECPR General Conference Sciences Po Bordeaux, Domaine Universitaire 4th – 7th Sept 2013 [email] n.m.anstead@lse.ac.uk [twitter] @nickanstead
  2. 2. The nature of the crisis • There is some agreement as to the depth situation, which has been referred to as the “second great contraction” (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2009). • There is some debate as to the temporal nature of the post-2008 crisis: – Some argue that it is a relatively recent situation, caused by the collapse of the banking system (Blyth, 2013); – Some argue it has been created by long-term structural deallignment between income and outgoings in advanced economies, which has been in place since the early 1970s (Schafer & Streeck, 2013).
  3. 3. The economics of austerity 0.0 20.0 40.0 60.0 80.0 100.0 120.0 140.0 160.0 180.0 200.0 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 National debt levels as a percentage of GDP Germany Greece Ireland United Kingdom Euro area (15 countries) OECD-Total
  4. 4. The economics of austerity -35.0 -30.0 -25.0 -20.0 -15.0 -10.0 -5.0 0.0 5.0 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 DepositasapercentofGDP Year Deposit level, as a proportion of national GDP Germany Greece Ireland United Kingdom United States Euro area (15 countries) OECD-Total
  5. 5. What is austerity? Austerity is a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is (supposedly) best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficits. Mark Blyth, 2013
  6. 6. What is austerity • This definition carries a implicit and explicit content. • Austerity is: – Voluntary; – Achieved wholly through spending cuts; – Ideologically driven. • There is undoubtedly some truth in this but I want to define austerity in a different way.
  7. 7. Austerity in historical perspective • The second position argues that: – European post-war settlement was put in place by sustained economic growth between 1945 and early 1970s. – Subsequently, the illusion of sustainability has been maintained by various policies: Labour market controls in the 1970s, weakening of unions in the 1980s, fiscal consolidation through “privatised Keynesianism” in the 1990s (Crouch, 2009), more readily available credit in the 2000s.
  8. 8. Austerity in historical perspective • Furthermore, it is unlikely that growth rates will ever return to post-war levels. • King (2013) argues that post-war circumstances were unique: • Particular technological developments; • an era of free trade; • women entering the work force; • Relatively available credit.
  9. 9. Austerity in historical perspective • If it is accepted the implications of this reading are profound. • Whole theories of politics have been built around the continuation of the post-war political settlement (i.e. Inglehart, 1990). • If the building blocks of the post-war settlement are decreasingly sustainable, then this will have huge political import.
  10. 10. Austerity deposits • Therefore, austerity potentially creates two deposits – a democratic deposit and (related to this) a communication deposit. – What does growing austerity mean for democratic political systems? – What in turn does this mean for the political communication environment, and what problems does it create?
  11. 11. The democratic problem of austerity • Democracy is ultimately about choice (Schafer & Streeck, 2013). • But if voters wish to reject policies of austerity, whom do they vote for? • This is especially problematic in harder hit countries (notably Greece, Ireland etc.) where foreign or supra- national involvement may be heavy. • Options may exist outside the established political system, but these are likely to be extremist or anti- system parties. • What does this mean for political communication?
  12. 12. Possible questions for political communication research 1. Change and continuity with the past 2. Going beyond tax and spend 3. Addressing the hybridity paradox 4. Maintaining institutional legitimacy
  13. 13. 1. Change and continuity with the past • Stripped of economic control, politicians may seek to continue to focus on valence political issues (i.e. focusing on administrative efficiency) (Clarke, Whiteley, Sanders, & Stewart, 2013). • However, concerns about “followerism” may decline, as politicians are less able to react to public opinion (Geer, 1996)
  14. 14. 2. Beyond tax and spend • Stripped of the ability to promise either tax cuts or spending rises (or both), politicians need to find new ways to entice the electorate. – This is especially problematic as policies could run for multi-election cycles. • One solution is clearly employing the rhetoric of crisis (Hay, 2010). • Alternatively, others either inside or outside a society can be blamed (specific nationalities, bankers, workshy etc.).
  15. 15. 3. The hybridity paradox • Chadwick (2013), writing on what he terms hybrid media systems, argues we are living in an age of media abundance and pluralism. • Furthermore, even elite or traditional media are becoming increasingly porous to outside information. • However, how is this reconciled with political systems that are less able to cope with divergent voices?
  16. 16. 4. The question of institutional legitimacy • One obvious is whether the public will accept the measures implemented to achieve austerity? • But if not, and given the democratic deposit, created by austerity, there is a question as to whether democratic institutions can retain legitimacy. • The public may also reject the whole political class seeking to implement measures. • One solution has been to remove political institutions from civil society control (Katz & Mair, 1995).
  17. 17. 4. The question of institutional legitimacy • But, if they don’t, we may find outlets in political parties outside the mainstream system. • We are already seeing some examples of this. • Alternatively, non-party organisations may gain traction (i.e. Occupy). • Alternatively, we may see increasingly levels of political apathy.
  18. 18. Conclusions and going forward • There is still a need to disentangle the definition of austerity grounded in neo-liberal ideology from broader or alternative definitions. – For example what would a social democratic version of austerity look like? • For politicians the major challenge may be retaining legitimacy for institutions and the political class as a whole as they implement austerity measures. • Academics need to better understand both the content of and decision behind party political communication with the public. – How do government, mainstream opposition and outsider parties position themselves in this new environment? – How aware are they are operating in a new environment?
  19. 19. Bibliography • Blyth, M. (2013). Austerity : the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press. • Clarke, H. D., Whiteley, P., Sanders, D., & Stewart, M. C. (2013). Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain: Cambridge University Press. • Crouch, C. (2009). Privatised Keynesianism: An unacknowledged policy regime. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 11(3), 382-399. • Geer, J. (1996). From tea leaves to public opinion polls: New York: Columbia University Press. • Hay, C. (2010). Chronicles of a Death Foretold: the Winter of Discontent and Construction of the Crisis of British Keynesianism. Parliamentary Affairs, 63(3), 446-470. doi: 10.1093/pa/gsp056 • Inglehart, R. (1990). Culture shift in advanced industrial society. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. • Katz, R. S., & Mair, P. (1995). Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy - the Emergence of the Cartel Party. Party Politics, 1(1), 5-28. • King, S. D. (2013). When the money runs out : the end of western affluence. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. • Reinhart, C. M., & Rogoff, K. S. (2009). This time is different: eight centuries of financial folly. Princeton: Princeton University Press. • Schafer, A., & Streeck, W. (2013). Introduction: Politics in the Age of Austerity. In A. Schafer & W. Streeck (Eds.), Politics in the Age of Austerity. Cambridge: Polity.