Here are some thoughts on the recent elections and political events that have taken place around the world, and reflections on developments in my own country, South Africa.
First, a bit of boring ‘theory’.
Political parties traditionally create a policy, within an ideological position. They then sell this policy, to the electorate. The process of selling usually entails extoling the virtues of their policy [positive campaigning] and pointing out how terribly bad their opponent’s positions are [negative campaigning].
Let’s unpack this traditional approach to party politics. See the diagram below:
The bulk of citizens have political affiliations, but they have no need to join a political party. Or they may support another political party. They are the folk in the very bottom layer of my inelegant triangle above.
Above that, the second layer, are the party supporters, who are not paid up members but who support the party and vote in its favour. They are not very active but they do have a political position.
The third layer from the bottom contains the active party supporters. They help with campaigns, undertake canvassing and attend meetings. They do the grunt work of a political party.
The layer second from the top contains the leadership group. They are actively involved in local, regional and national structures, and they may be paid staff or volunteers. They provide structure and continuity.
The top layer are the party members active in government, be it in national regional or local government.
The top two layers, in most cases, manage policy and strategy. The policy is devised on the basis of what will get the party the most votes and enable them to be the majority party in the government structures.
Once devised, the programme is sold to the lower structures and to the general voting public. That’s the time you get flyers stuffed in your post-box, terse SMS texts imploring you to vote, and a whole lot of who-hah in the media. See diagram below:
Individual support for a political party is often determined by social, cultural, religious or economic life experiences. Poorer, younger people tend to vote left. Older, wealthier people tend to vote Right. Rural people may be more conservative. City people may be more liberal. Of course the are many exceptions to my grand generalisations.
But all this has changed.
Ordinary working citizens are no longer willing to let remote political leaderships determine what the focus of government should be. They want to be recognised. They want to be consulted. They want their voice to be heard. We see deep divisions inside political parties across the spectrum and across the geographical divide. In South Africa – deep divisions within the ANC and the DA. In France, the political structures have been turned on their head. In Britain the Conservative party and the Labour party are each torn apart over Brexit. And in the US, the Republicans and the Democrats are all over the place.
There are large credibility gaps between party leadership and their traditional followers.
What has happened?
Modern social media and modern consumer marketing emphasise the primacy of the individual, the market segment of one.
When I grew up, we got our news from a morning newspaper and an evening newspaper. If the editorial staff missed a deadline, it went into the next edition, 24 hours later. If you, as a citizen, had a complaint, you wrote a letter to the same newspaper – hopefully the editor would publish it – or you sent a letter to your member of parliament. A response could have been expected within a few weeks.
Now we have a multitude of channels at our disposal, especially social media. Social media allows ordinary citizens to comment on political events, share political views, and build communities of like-minded people. Comments are disseminated instantaneously. Platform algorithms target posts to like-minded people, who in turn add their views. This forms a reinforcing loop. And all this happens without the oversight or intervention of political party leadership.
Some political parties have tried various social media strategies. Some have worked well, with thoughtful, targeted messages. Some have been less successful.
The problem has been, it is more of the same. Political leaders still try to ‘sell’ their policies to the electorate. Citizens, on the other hand, want to be recognised and they want their views to be heard. These views may eventually be rejected, but they want their inputs to be taken seriously somewhere in the system.
Selling, convincing and cajoling is not the solution. It derives from an inappropriate and outdated business mode for political parties. In our first diagram above we showed how party leadership compiles the “Truth” and then sells it to the electorate, in the hope of obtaining votes and power. To understand how we move beyond this, we have to consider the methods and processes of stakeholder engagement.
The core of stakeholder engagement is to fully and completely understand the issues, concerns and problems of the other group or party. Once the dynamics of interaction are understood, a political party can then devise policies and a programme of action based on addressing the issues raised by stakeholders [i. e. the electorate]. This is the elegant simplicity. [I am leaving out a lot of the stakeholder engagement ‘secret sauce’ here!] Traditional political party policy is based on ideology and expedience. Ideology reflects a collection of values frozen within a structure. Modern citizens take political decisions based on their reference group [cf Facebook] and their values. Their values determine their stance on the issues, problems and concerns that they are facing.
When we move from a voter dynamic and recast political parties within a stakeholder dynamic, the licence to operate comes to the fore. Political parties, if they are to be relevant, will have to spend much more time listening to the broad array of the electorate, scanning above ideological filters, and then adjusting their programmes to address the needs [‘issues’ in stakeholder engagement parlance] of the people, rather than being subservient to their ideology – be it an ANC, DA, Conservative, Labour, Republican or Democratic party.
Political parties across the spectrum will do well to consider the methods, tools and concepts of stakeholder engagement. The electorate has moved into that space already. The real political revolution is already under way.