The role of television in political processes

Influence of television on modern political practice. Nature of media power and its impact on political system of society, its character, practice and institutions. Dangers of new mediated symbolic politics for the democratic political practices.

Рубрика Журналистика, издательское дело и СМИ
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politics television mediated symbolic power

This paper will be the continuation of a theoretical discussion about how the communications media have changed the nature of politics into what is known as symbolic politics. I will concentrate on the influence of television on modern political practice. Such focus is determined by the assumption that the audiovisual media have become the main medium, through which symbolic politics is performed and its nature being changed.

While using the concept of symbolic politics, I will explain the nature of media power and its impact on political system of society, on its character, practices and institutions. By symbolic politics I mean political communication practice that aims at influencing citizens through `emotional channels' The notion of symbolic politics is also depicted by the concepts such as media events, political spectacle, theater of politics, media rituals, television ceremonies, festive television, cultural performances, mediated representations.. Symbolic politics campaigns are conducted through mass media, and citizens participate in them as members of the media audience. Thus, the main focus of this paper centers on the inquiry: Is the transformation of symbolic politics harmless for the liberal democratic values and for the development of civic culture in a modern state? The answer to this inquiry is that modern symbolic politics conducted through mass media (mainly television) eventually generates and determines the process through which political life enters the symbolic virtual space of mass media. Such process can constitute a serious danger for democratic values such as political participation and civic culture because citizens, once placed within a symbolic media-political space, become alienated and passive spectators of a political `show' rather than an active and conscious participants in the political processes.

The final goal of my work is to emphasize the dangers of new mediated symbolic politics for the democratic political practices. Political spectatorship encouraged by modern symbolic politics through television may essentially contradict the principles of political participation.

The terms I introduce and will operate in the paper have strict limitations and should be comprehended in this restricted way. By `teledemocracy' I mean special type of democratic government, adapted to the rules of telediscourse (discourse of television). There are different definitions of teledemocracy and in this study I will apply the notion of teledemocracy that is closer, in its meaning, to `telecracy': the power of television and not to the concept of teledemocracy defined as “electrification of the implementation of democracy since 1980's (the term refers to “remote voting” and through that to direct democracy)” Keskinen, Auli ed. (1995). Teledemocracy - on Social Impacts of Information Networks. Helsinki: Painatuskeskus. P 10.. The term `mediacracy' stresses the important role of media as the creator of the world image including the world of politics. This definition of mediacracy does not focus on interpretation of mediacracy as increasing consolidation of media outlets in the hands of a few media conglomerates (phenomenon symptomatic for US social life) because this would go beyond the scope of my analysis.

Structurally the paper consists of two chapters. In the first section “Causes”, I will explain the concept of symbolic politics and the role of mass communication media in transforming political space. Consequently, in the section “Effects”, I will focus on the outcomes of the transformation of symbolic politics and talk about the dangers associated with this transformation to liberal democracy.

Chapter I CAUSES

Concept of symbolic politics

Symbolic politics is one of the topics most actively discussed in contemporary political science, especially in German academia (M. Edelman, R. Schpelt, W. Schultz, H. Rust). This concept denotes a special kind of political communication, which aims not at rational comprehension, but at foisting stable senses most often with the help of visual effects Potseluyev, S. Symbolic Politics: Constellation of Notions for the Problem, Polis, vol.4 (1999). P.7. . Thus, symbolic politics is not just applying symbols, but is a symbol in itself.

Every political action (presidential decree, parliamentary session, interview with a terrorist) has its symbolic expression, which serves as the emotional `glue' for the various elements of social life. Such symbolic expressivities are not necessarily aimed at deceiving audiences' feelings, but they are vitally needed for conducting policies.

However, symbolic politics is not likely to be a spontaneous type of communication, but a purposeful use of the aesthetic symbolic resources for legitimization and enforcement of power. Every symbolic politics performed by power implies the asymmetry of social communication, when a real communication exchange between higher and lower levels of society is problematic or impossible. Sometimes, power tries to feign state functions (e.g. welfare services, personal or environmental security etc.) that are demanded by citizens, but power cannot or do not want to perform them.

Symbolic politics actively uses aesthetic capacities of the symbol Symbol works as an irreplaceable mean of integration and mobilization of human collectivities. The secret of such role lies in suggestion (inducement) of the symbol that embodies something common and anonymous. - See Losev, A. (1982) Sigh, Symbol, Myth. Moscow. P.64 and is one of the most important forms the aethetization of politics. Aesthetical politics give all the social and political phenomena aesthetical (symbolic and irrational) but not political (practical and rational) characteristics. As a result, political actions are evaluated according to criteria of entertainment and public popularity.

As mentioned above, symbolic politics has been always embedded in and existed as an inherent part of political power. However, if in ancient times power used statues, medals and triumphal arches, today power uses modern media. By this time television has become the most effective and appropriate channel for conducting symbolic politics. Furthermore, television acts not just as a medium, but plays an independent role as the powerful institution for mass communication with its own rules and principles.

Media and political systems: shift in balance of power

According to system theory in social sciences, the society can be viewed as the systematic unit of elements, each of which has its own prescribed function. Political system has the function of decision making, putting the society into order using political power, while media system is to perform the function of political communication, which would serve to consolidate society and its parts.

Every subsystem within the social system should undergo certain innovations in order to support the common equilibrium based on relations between subsystems. Hence, this principle guarantees normal functioning of the society See Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. New York. Longman.. Additionally, we can also assume that subsystems of the society may compete between each other: “social complexity is tied to the functional differentiation of society and the development of specialized competing and overlapping systems” See Luhmann, N. (1975). Macht. Stuttgart. Enke Verlag. .

Today political systems of Western liberal democracies experience serious difficulties while performing their tasks -a phenomenon of a widening `legitimacy gap': a decrease of the citizens' support for the state and its institutions. When the welfare state was established, the necessity for political activism and the audience's interest in serious political and socially important topics significantly dropped Херманн М. Политическая коммуникация: воздействие средств массовой информации современных государствах [Political communication: influence of mass media in modern states] // URL: More and more segments of society turned towards apolitical life comforted by the economic and social stability brought about by a protective nature of the welfare system.

While the political system became weaker the media system grew stronger. The transformation of modern media system has all the reasons to be called `media revolution'. Media became more powerful in public sphere: they turned out to be the most influential, if not the only method of effective political communication in our days. Moreover, liberalization and economic development created the media market, which continues to grow and to form the competition environment, producing enormous amount of abundant `information good'. If before the 1980s technical and economic conditions restrained the development of mass media, nowadays such restrictions are minimal - the cost of information production and distribution dropped and quantities of information skyrocketed.

The factors, described above, inevitably cause the situation in which the functions of political and media systems are either overlapping or not well balanced. This is the starting point for the mediatization theory that looks at the increasing influence of media on politics. The basic claims are the following: firstly, if one system (political) becomes weaker the other system (media) will overtake its functions; secondly, if one system (media) is getting more important for the society the other system (political) will try to strengthen itself too using every possible tools (even if these tools belong to the media system); thirdly, if one system changes the change of the other is inevitable due to competition and cooperation modes that exist in social system. Eventually, widely accepted but controversial assumption is that changing systems can converge (create a symbiosis/unity), not overlap (duplicating their functions). Notably, such convergence theory generally emphasizes the importance of mass media: usually, media-political system forms because of the existence of a weak state For instance, Ivan Zasurskiy explored media-political system, which was formed in the 1990s in the Russian Federation. At the time when state institutions were feeble and not stable, channels of mass communication became basically responsible for the outcomes of political rivalries. - See Засурский И. Репрезентация или коммуникация. [Representation or communication] // URL: .

Television in postmodern political communication

Modern symbolic politics belongs to the phenomenon of post-modern communication era. A large part of messages in the flow of political communication is aimed not at providing a description of reality, but at creating some desired images, emotions and symbols. This post-modern era could be characterized by features such as: fragmentation of audiences, tabloidization of news, permanent political campaigns, fierce commercial pressure See Norris, P. The Rise of Postmodern Political Communication in The Newsmedia and their Influence ed. Norris, P. (1997). Riener Publishers. London. Pp. 1-17.. No matter how called, “media revolution”, “media-saturated age Couldry, N. (2003) Media Rithuals. A critical approach. Routledge London. P.1.” or “postmodern” the existence of this era with its specific rules and images influences the form and the content of the news media.

Symbolic politics transformed not only because of the political and social factors but also as a result of the existence of so called “McLuhan's Galaxy”, the reality that emerged in the era of electronic media (primarily television) supremacy This term was used by Manuel Castels. This metaphor originates from the name of the first book by Marchal MacLuhan “Guttenberg Galaxy” (1962) - See Castels, M. (1996) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture: The Rise of the Network Society.-Malden. Massachusetts.. McLuhan's theory about the TV medium allows us to better understand the nature of symbolic politics transformation. McLuhan sees television as the dominant medium that forms the message of our epoch See McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. The extensions of man. London, Routledge. . Although today this medium is seriously challenged by newer inventions (internet, mobile technology), its influence on the culture lasts. According to McLuhan, the most significant feature brought to the culture by electronic media is irrationality. Characteristics of “MacLuhan's Galaxy” such as mosaic perception, unification and simplification of reality, lack of logic and chronology contradict rational political activism and thus, forces society and its members out of a political space.

Chapter 2 EFFECTS

Analysis of telediscourse

Teledemocracy is the form of democratic governance that is adapted to the rules of telediscourse The term telediscourse is used to stress on the anti-discourse nature of television. Division of truth on rationally proved and intuitive types can be found at Plato and Aristotle. Discursive means logical, based on rational thinking, but not on emotional perception. . This specific discourse exists on the screen as mosaic of `presentative images', which do not claim to be right or wrong, but only to seem real. In general, telediscourse is contra-discourse, where the value of logic (rational sequence and coherent context) turns into anti-value as soon as it ceases to entertain the public. For example, the value of logic of television that changes into anti-value is clearly shown in the following quote: “The one who speaks for too long - is hiding something, the one who is silently showing impressive shots - is a prophet” Meyer, T. (1992) Inszenierung des Scheins.- Frankfurt/Main.P.110.. The difference between `see' and `know' is erased by magic realism of TV images. Such images develop its persuasive potential by concealing the difference between fiction and reality. Consequently, they are more convincing for an audience member than theoretical and ideological arguments. Therefore, TV-images are read according to the crucial rule of telediscourse: what cannot be spoken about on the screen should be in fact shown there since the pictures are stronger than thousands words.

The main reason for distortion of reality in the media, according to W. Schulz, is that the messages are influenced by internal factors of media See Schulz W. (1990) Die Konstruktion von Realitaet i n den Nachrichtenmedien. Analyse der aktuellen Berichterstattung. Freiburg, Munchen. S.106. . Events with simple structure, conflict in the centre of action, high level of personification, attachment to stereotypes are most appreciated in telediscourse. Those events that correspond to these requirements are accepted and utilized those that do not correspond are ignored or gate-kept.

Additionally I should mention American sociologist Jerry Marder, the author of “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” (1978). He identified features immanent for the nature of television, however without using the concept of telediscourse. Among them were: biased negative attitude towards complicated and sophisticated questions that require historical approach, serious problems, traditions and spirituality, mass social movement, realities and “aura of human life Marder J. (1978) Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television New York: Quill. P. 19. ”. Instead, according to Marder, television prefers death, war, goods, artificially created events, and quickened pace, charismatic leaders.

The authors quoted above identified the rules of telediscourse from the perspective of two different schools of thought: American sociological school and German philosophical school, which do not contradict but supplement each other. Inclusion and explanation of the views of the representatives of these two schools served the purpose of providing more detailed analysis of telediscourse and its content.

Main consequences of mediated symbolic politics
Since parties and institutions of state power are trying to adapt themselves to conditions of teledemocracy, they are, in this way, strengthening political orientation towards mass media. Television is accused, thus, of shifting the emphasis towards rhetoric and symbolism, away from real political problems and objectives. Symbolic politics of the post-modern political communication era has gained more permanent character and symbolic actions have become routine.
Competition for publicity can be seen as the first consequence of for the modern symbolic politics. Being public has become one of the most important tasks of politicians. Those who are trying to limit publicity lose their positions in a tough political struggle. The statement of E. Noelle-Neumann (1993) - “the one, who does not find his own opinion in mass communication, is silent” Ноэль-Нойман, Э. (1996). Общественное мнение. Открытие спирали молчания. [Public Opinion] М., С. 44. - in reference to politicians can be paraphrased as `the one, who is not present in political communication, is not present in the world of politics'. In other words, the lesser someone appears in media the greater this person's diminution in public eyes.
The next effect is the lowering of concentration of the politicians in practical and problem solving issues. Instead political actors spend great recourses and efforts on communication strategies for the television. It may negatively influence both moral and practical aspects of politics. For instance, presence of television during a parliamentary session can lower its practical efficiency and the lost of “parliamentary self-respect”: the speech before mass auditory is often demagogic or offensive towards others See Нідермайєр Г-П. Телекратія замість демократії? [Telecracy intead of democracy] Віче.-2002, №1.-с.71..
One more consequence of the television mediated symbolic politics is that political language resembles everyday language. During TV-translation narratives are kaleidoscopic (changing fast) and with fragmented plot. Politicians should use the most simplified and laconic constructions in order to be heard and understood. Such simplification in the language can distort the adequate idea about the problem.
One of the most widely discussed factors of symbolic politics is the rise of the level of political personalization. Television concentrates on party leaders who are “mediagenic” and well prepared. Among those politicians who succeeded owing to their professional TV-related training were, for example, Ronald Regan and Tony Blair. Although it may be too radical to say that the politicians-as-celebrities have, by themselves, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the later Postman, N (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books. New York.P.133..
Final consequence of mediated symbolic politics is that, entertainment has become the supra-ideology of television. Economic, organizational and technological “logic” of television requires providing the information in entertaining, visually attractive form. Television is not just entertaining but it has “made the entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience” Ibid. P.126..

Drama of alienation and dangers of political spectatorship

In modern political systems mass media gained power from interpretation and constructing social reality in the process of political communication. The social world is `mediated' through a media system that has very particular power-effects on how the actions and believes of all of us are caught up in this process Couldry, N. (2003) Media Rithuals. A critical approach. Routledge London.P.34.. Hence, the potential of symbolic politics rests on creating the models of political reality. Such situation does not necessarily cause political alienation, but it inevitably creates conditions for it. Political alienation is a condition under which media recipients lose the rational sight of political processes and as a consequence, no longer thoughtfully participate in them. Thus, symbolic politics performed through mass media can be viewed as the cause of political alienation.

Citizens usually have illusionary passive participation, if the political process is staged on TV. Many authors criticize the dangerous tendency: “as the modernization process advances, the essential form of citizens' participation in election campaigns changes from direct personal involvement to spectatorship” Paolo Mancini and David L. Swanson Politics, Media, and Modern Democracy, Westport, Conn:Praeger, 1996, P. 16.. “Political spectacle” concentrates more on respecting the symbolic commitments on solving real problems.

G. Murdok proposed the distinction between the identities of customers and that of citizens:

On the one side stood the crowd, emotional, seduced by dramatic images, acting in concert, bargaining by riot and demonstration. On the other side stood the citizen, rational, open to sequential argument, making considered personal choices and registering preferences soberly, in solitude of the voting booth Murdock, G. (1993). Communications and the constitution of modernity. Media, Culture and Society, 15, P. 527. .

Finally, pre-planned media events, “high holidays of mass communication” Dayan, D., Katz E. (1994) Media Events: The Life Broadcasting of History. Harvard University Press. Harvard. Second edition. P. 1 are the clearest symptoms of the development of `political theatre'. According to Fiske, the term media event is an indication that in:

post-modern world we can no longer rely on a stable relationship or clear distinction between a real event and its mediated representation. Consequently, we can no longer work with the idea that the “real” is more important, significant, or even and “true” than the representation. A media event, then, is not a mere representation and what happened, but it has its own reality, which gathers up into itself the reality of the event that may or may not have preceded it Fiske, J. quoted in Michael X. Delli Carpini and Bruce A. Williams “Let Us Infotain You: Politics in the New Media Environment”, Bernett and Eutman, Mediated Politics,.

Apparently, a `state-theatre' (influencing the minds of citizens through political spectacle) is better than a `state-prison' (influencing citizens through autocratic methods). Thus, political alienation and passive spectatorship can be accepted as factum brutum in the conditions of modern liberal democracies. However, two dangers stemming from mediated symbolic politics for the democratic process are discernable. Firstly, in case of serious political and social problems mediated symbolic politics can easily turn into `tranquillity pill' for the public, making it numbed to potential conflicts and apathetic towards any involvement in political processes. Secondly, symbolic politics in its TV version often deprives citizens of an access to accurate and objective information, proper political education and adequate political socialization.


This paper showed that the causes of transformation of symbolic politics in the era of televisions lie in the development of the media system brought about by the emergence of television and in the technology and discourse of television itself. Another important cause of transformation of symbolic politics was found in diminishing power of a liberal democratic state.

This study also analysed the effects of the transformation of symbolic politics. It proved that these effects and the excessive use of symbolic politics are far from being considered advantageous to the democratic practices. The negative effects generated by transformation of symbolic politics have been found in the political processes that began resembling a show-business with its triviality, dramaturgy and personification. The most dangerous aspect of transformation is virtualisation of political space, where the consumers of mediated symbolic politics enter a virtual trap that eventually blocks their connections with the real world. In turn, such outcome is reflected in low political participation, political and social apathy, passive consumption of political information for the sake of entertainment, distorted ideas about politicians and politics combined with the election of low quality political representatives often with questionable reputations simply because of their positive media-generated image.


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2. Bryant J., Zillman D. (2002) Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. Publishres.

3. Couldry, N. (2003) Media Rituals. A critical approach. Routledge London.

4. Dayan, D., Katz E. (1994) Media Events: The Life Broadcasting of History. Harvard University Press. Harvard. Second edition.

5. Debord G. Society of Spectacle. // URL:

6. Luhmann, N. (1975). Macht. Stuttgart: Enke Verlag.

7. Marder J. (1978) Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Quill. P. 19.

8. Meyer, T, Hinchman, L. (2002) Media Democracy How the media colonize politics. Polity. Cambridge.

9. Meyer, T. (1992) Inszenierung des Scheins.- Frankfurt/Main.P.110.

10. Munch R. Politische Macht als Medium der Kommunication. // Munch R. Dynamik der Kommunikationsgesellschaft . - Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1995.

11. Neuman W., Just M., Crigler A. Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of the Political Meaning. - Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

12. O'Sullivan, J., Hartley, T.,J., Saunders D., Montgomery M., Fiske J. Key (1994) Concepts in Communication and Cultural studies. Routledge. London.

13. Postman, N (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books. New York.

14. Potseluyev, S. Symbolic Politics: Constellation of Notions for the Problem, Polis, vol.4 (1999). P.7.

15. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. The extensions of man. London, Routledge.

16. Norris, P. The Rise of Postmodern Political Communication in The Newsmedia and their Influence ed. Norris, P. (1997). Riener Publishers. London.

17. Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. New York. Longman.

18. Schulz W. (1990) Die Konstruktion von Realitaet i n den Nachrichtenmedien. Analyse der aktuellen Berichterstattung. Freiburg, Munchen. S.106.

19. Нідермайєр Г-П. Телекратія замість демократії? [Telecracy intead of democracy] Віче.-2002, №1.-с.71.

20. Ноэль-Нойман, Э. (1996). Общественное мнение. Открытие спирали молчания. [Public Opinion] М., С. 44.

21. Херманн М. Политическая коммуникация: воздействие средств массовой информации современных государствах [Political communication: influence of mass media in modern states] // URL:

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