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We are all spin doctors

Open Panel

Abstract

How do modern voters comprehend politics? This paper grapples with how citizens after almost twenty years of horse race journalism and “spindoctering” perceive the actions of political parties - and how it affects their participation patterns. The question I pose is whether we can detect the logic and language of the intense mediatization in the way voters makes sense of politics (e.g. Bennett 2001). In short, this study shows that: Some voters do not only contemplate the actions of political parties, they contemplate how political parties contemplate their actions. That sparks a new type of voter that goes behind the scene and evaluates parties not only on their issues or ideology but also on their strategic handling of everyday events. I term it a second order voter. Inspired by Luhmann (2000) and others we here see an ideal type voter that tries to perceive from outside the political - not from the first order of political preferences - but in the more comfortable and privileged position in the second order. The meta order. Data is collected from an alternative study in Denmark. Over 2000 respondents have participated and made “free associations” about the seven political parties. Completely free. No closed survey questions - but open spaces. That is the foundation on which I have tried to tap into voter minds and understand their comprehension of politics. This method is selected because figuring out how voters reason, I argue, requires an alternative research design. In sum, I ended up with over 15.000 associations that have been coded afterwards into 11 categories. One of them named “strategy talk”, which is of interest to this article. Some of the conclusions from the study: 1) 20 % of all associations were located in the “strategy talk” category (Inter-coding reliability: Cronbach 0,88) 2) The strategy associations could be identified through all kinds of socio-demographic variables. The ideal type is apparently a broad phenomenon. Among other aspects we tested for political knowledge, left/right orientation, gender, education and income. 3) There are different patterns a second order voter can follow – different levels of sophistication through which the individual contemplates politics. I outline a typology. 4) Initial explanations for the second order voter: A) A short cut to easily break down the complex political debate B) Voters are depoliticizing their understanding of democracy – apathy? C) Emancipatory technique to kick back on the framing and manipulation of the elite actors in the political system and in the media. By deconstructing and searching for motives, voters can eventually force political parties to communicate in a different way. A process we have seen in corporate communication and marketing in the private sector when consumers catch up with the newest “marketer tool kits”. A process documented in consumptions studies (e.g. Holt 2002). Fundamentally the question is: Have the debate climate, the political journalism, spin doctors, punditocracy and the transformations in the political system paved the way for a second order voter? I will finally elaborate on that and what the consequences are for the democratic debate. I will be happy to present more from this study if you are interested. Otherwise I look forward to hear from you. Sincerely Sigge Winther Nielsen Copenhagen University