The Triangle of Consensus: Authenticity, Extraordinariness and Ordinariness in Political Communication
Consensus-building practices are always among the primary concerns for political leaders and their own staff. The reason is simple and straightforward: there is no successful politician without his/her strong ability to attract and maintain the favor of thousands, in several cases millions, of citizens. If it is thus true that politicians operating within the borders of liberal democracy cannot get rid of consensus-building practices, the concrete way and mechanisms in which this occurs are what has changed over the years. However, regarding this subject matter, dispersion and fragmentation rather than conceptual clarity and cohesion manifest within a wide and heterogeneous scientific literature. There are some branches of research devoting particular attention to the extraordinary abilities of certain political actors, employing also notions such as charisma or even reflecting on the thaumaturgic power of some elected individuals; others instead look at a presumed unescapable pressing on political leaders as to be perceived as “one of us”, as the “man/woman of the street”, or as an “ordinary individual”; there is finally a third branch of research that instead focuses more on the role of authenticity within the communicative strategies of politicians, arguing that their ability to appear as “someone trustworthy”, that “we can trust” and “genuine and reliable” is what would better allow them to win an electoral challenge.
That being said, in the field of political communication, political elites and consensus-building practices, one of the most striking latest trend –that is the ability of political leaders to appear as an ordinary citizen– happens to intertwine and merge with the former two aspects structurally and historically shaping liberal democracies: being both an extraordinary person –“better than the ordinary citizens” on the art of politics– but also an authentic and genuine individual who sincerely cares about her/his own community, therefore someone citizens can trust. By reflecting on the interactions among these three components and adopting a holistic approach, this article presents a heuristic tool in order to understand what drives consensus-building practices for contemporary political leaders and to also co-explain the reasons for their success (or failure). We name this tool triangle of consensus.
With this research aim in mind, we organize this paper as follows. First, we pose its theoretical premises by briefly discussing the history of consensus-building practices. Second, we distinctively reflect on its three components –authenticity, ordinariness, and extraordinariness– and their role in an ever-changing media and political environment. Third, we present and discuss the main features, theoretical and practical implications of the triangle of consensus. Fourth, we adopt this tool to evaluate the consensus-building practices of different contemporary political leaders, both within party politics and social movements, and under different institutional settings: Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, and Matteo Salvini. Finally, we conclude by identifying the main strengths but also limitations of the triangle of consensus, reflecting on its evolution over time, within different political contexts, and as affected by disruptive events, such as the advent of a pandemic.