Political communication in the age of expressivity
What are the discursive mechanisms of expressive, emotional and uncivil political rhetoric in Hungary?
Aims of the project
Contemporary political life in Hungary abounds with an expressive display of emotions. Although passions have always been part of politics, so far scholarship dealing with politics has claimed their presence exceptional and to be eliminated. But what if expressivity is becoming mainstream in politics? What if one frequently sees citizens demonstrate in the streets with obscenities on political posters and in chanting, or politicians ignore political correctness and good manner, or, finally, journalists declare enthusiastic adherence to specific parties?
Political science should meet the challenge of politics turning anxious and expressive: should set to describe the transformation and scrutinize its reasons and consequences. The task is urgent because the complex relationship between feelings, affective expressions and political communication is poorly analysed even following the affective turn in social science research. This is not due to a lack of interest, rather to the multiple, especially, methodological challenges for the scientists.
The EXPRIMER project fills this knowledge gap by investigating the expressive functions of political communication. We plan to look at expressivity in the communication by the three main types of political actors: politicians, journalists and citizens in Hungary. The project will explore the verbal and visual forms of communication the primary function of which is to express or arouse emotions. The objective is a deep understanding of the role of emotions, incivility, outrage discourses and journalistic interventionism in political communication. Hungary is an excellent case to study expressive politics: the country has recently been in the spotlight of international attention because of the insulting language and emotive expressions about migration the Fidesz-led government and the pithy phrases degrading the Prime Minister Orban Viktor from the opponents.
The 4-year-long project offers a unique synergy of approaches, competences and resources in political communication research. Working with the methodological apparatus of content analysis, sentiment analysis and online surveying, we will provide descriptive, comparative and explanatory analyses of the expressivity in politics.
Expressivity in the political communication literature
The past couple of years has seen a dramatic change in political communication and political behaviour in the Western world. The electoral success of Donald Trump in the US and the steady rise of populism in Europe as well as the changes in the nature of public demonstrations and online talks on politics have revealed that new beliefs and practices shattering traditional norms and decorum have moved to the centre of everyday politics. The new ‘normality’, sometimes even turning into normativity, has brought, among others, widespread use of verbal and visual vulgarity and emotionally overwhelmed
communication, that is, behaviours considered deviant and politically incorrect previously. It is an especially valid claim in the case of Hungary where expressivity has become the mainstream of politics on both sides of the political spectrum and where political history shows that specific emotional strategies have proved extremely successful; the anti-migration campaign seems to have been the most efficient ever for the past thirty years in arousing fear as well as self-confidence.
So far the transformation of display rules has been mostly explained as malpractice or breach of norms of democracy and those of middle class face-to-face communication but the analyses have focused on sporadic cases or reflected solely on the American context. To provide a broader and deeper understanding of the topic, we offer to elaborate a novel conceptual framework that will make it possible to describe the main forms, explain the reasons and assess the impact of expressive politics.
Our approach relies on the dynamic and flexible definition of expressivity in politics which covers all communications and acts that violate the norms of politics in terms of leaving rationality behind and of displaying emotions for the public. For the time being, the scholarly community discusses the following issues under the umbrella of expressivity: public incivility and obscenity, publicly expressed feelings and emotions regarding politics, partial and emotionally biased and saturated coverage of political developments by politicians and journalists, affect-driven motivated reasoning and character assassination. EXPRIMER project integrates such topics and complements them investigating the verbal and visual manifestations of politicians/parties, news media and citizens.
There is a growing recognition among scholars that forms of public communication deviating from those considered rational, fact-based and argumentative are also important in democratic politics especially because affective and expressive politics have distinct behavioural consequences like voting in a specific way, wearing campaign symbols, protesting, and news consumption.
The recognition has led to a call for the inclusion of expressivity into the theoretical and empirical research framework of political behaviour. The first attempt to integrate emotions and the ways citizens communicate their feelings about politics aimed at the explanation of the rising radical right-wing or populist movements. Expressivity, however, is not limited to the extreme right. Emotions, incivility, outrage discourses and opinion journalism is prevalent in the mainstream as well. While the changes in political discourses have received considerable scholarly attention in the United States, in Europe, there has been little research done on the mediated communication of being aroused.
The difficulties start with the definition of the concepts. For example, researchers have defined and operationalized incivility in diverse ways. Some scholars argue civility equates with politeness and incivility with rudeness; others massively disagree. The use of highly emotional speech, including appeals to negative emotions such as hatred, fear, or anger, may sometimes be very uncivil for some, whereas others argue that emotional speech per se should not be equated with political incivility.
Also, the term outrage is usually applied to draw the vague contour of a particular form of political discourse which involve efforts to provoke visceral responses (e.g., anger, righteousness, fear) through the use of insulting languages, ad hominem attacks, verbal and visual emotional display from the audience who may be individuals, organizations, or entire communities of interest. It is, however, extremely difficult to operationalize and measure.
Regarding the general consequences of expressive politics, grave concerns have been raised by pundits and public intellectuals that it undermines the public trust and has a detrimental effect on democracy, yet little empirical evidence has been provided so far whether there is such a harmful effect. It is suggested that it can stimulate negative emotions within those exposed. Exposure to incivility can also affect the ways in which individuals engage in politics, such as reducing political trust and the legitimacy of outgroup views and increasing the use of incivility in political comments. Theories from the discrete emotions approach suppose that anger, induced by threats to the ingroup, is associated with the behavioural approach. Likewise, affective intelligence theory, a dimensional approach to emotions, supposes that affective reactions to stimuli can determine whether
citizens act more as partisan combatants or deliberative citizens in online settings, with anger spurring the former. Studies that draw from both approaches find that anger mobilizes individuals to work towards partisan-oriented goals (such as electoral victories) and to reject updating their positions based on pre-existing views and avoiding new information. Although classic theories emphasize the relevance of anger and outrage in the mobilization process, there are controversies about the mobilization potential of prosocial emotions, such as sympathy, pity or feeling sorry for someone. Some studies suggest that prosocial emotions alone are not efficient for mobilizing for social change, while others indicate that the coexistence of sympathy toward a group and anger about a grievance are important predictors of allyship. It is also argued that exposure to negative emotions and the expressions of negativity (e.g. incivility and interventionism) have effect on citizens. Audience does not only imitate what it sees, but tends to lose trust in politics. Uncivil way of talking about political opinion seems to evoke further rudeness. Moreover, the repetitive and purposeful use of disrespectful words contributes to the ‘desacralization’ of politics and the mainstreaming of the ‘bad manners’.
How to study expressivity in politics?
As the short literature review above has shown, it is needed to extend the research agenda towards a general understanding of the complex relationship between feelings, affective expressions, opinions and politics. The overall objective of the proposed project is to fill the theoretical and empirical knowledge gaps by examining the expressive functions of political communication in the era of public anxiety.
Defining the problem
The starting point is that today politics has an emotion-saturated communication environment, and, moreover, the fact-based rational way of argumentation is losing its role as the benchmark in expressing political views, to be replaced by appeals to sentiments and personal beliefs.
Popular culture, that is, everyday practice, has always been permeated by emotions and uncivil displays of anger and joy. With mediatization first and then with the huge popularity of social media, even institutional political actors have felt obliged to adapt to the emotion and incivility based conditions all around in the public sphere. On the other hand, politicians have taken advantage of the new environment and started to make a strategic use of emotions, positive as well as negative, during campaigns and also in general. They opened, apparently or effectively, their inner lives, e.g., private spheres, families, previously concealed emotions and attitudes, their allegedly and assertively displayed authentic selves, to the audience, to the voters.
Something similar has taken place among the citizens. Contrary to the initial expectations that a digital public sphere could foster their deliberative engagement, a notable feature of the digital age is its non-deliberative tendencies. As the diffusion radius of impulsive talk on politics is growing – especially on social media platforms –, there is an increasing visibility of outrage displays which usually provoke visceral responses through the use of overgeneralizations, ad hominem attacks and incivility. That tends to be cumulative: because of the fast speed of online commenting, rationality and detailed argumentation are suppressed and replaced by haphazard and hasty reactions which, in turn, provoke similar reactions. We are also calling for greater attention to be dedicated to the affective responses to political messages, particularly amongst partisans. Studies have shown that emotions can affect not only voters’ information processing, electoral participation, candidate evaluation, campaign message recall, vote intention, but the use of incivility as well. To linking electoral studies with expressivity, we need in-depth analysis whether affective response contribute to the emergence of antagonistic, irreconcilable and overly polarised emotional discourses in politics.
In the realm of media, beside the stylistic and strategic shifts, the digital political communication gives new impetus to the more personalised and more emotional modes of news production not only in Hungary but all around the globe. Specifically, the challenges to objectivity and to distancing in covering politics have brought again to the forefront a particular cluster of journalistic development. Subjectivity and expressivity in journalistic performance have tended to be discussed as the signals of the decline of professional standards. For the last couple of years new conventional wisdom has surfaced in journalism studies which tells us that news media content inexorably becomes more partial over time. Such negative assessment is mostly coming from the scholarly reflection on tabloidization and partisanship, there is however little scholarly evidence regarding the extent and the manifestations of journalistic expressivity in news content in Hungary.
- Multi-disciplinary approach required
The underlying reasons for the need of conceptual and methodological renewal are the novelty and complexity of the problem, and the challenges in observing the occurrences and understanding the causes, motives and impacts of expressivity in politics. The main scientific challenge is identified as follows: since neither disciplines are equipped enough with means to handle the expressive issues, but each has tools to contribute, the project requires multi-disciplinary approach, using knowledge from journalism studies, political communication studies, and political psychology making the work a truly exciting multi-disciplinary endeavour. To unpack the communicative components of expressivity, we will look at the three main actors of politics: politicians, news media journalists and citizens in Hungary. EXPRIMER will concentrate on the verbal and visual forms of political communication whose primary function is to express or arouse emotions. The objective is to have a deep understanding of the role of emotions, incivility, outrage discourses and journalistic interventionism in political communication.
- Theoretical and empirical challenges
There is no common vocabulary of research on expressive politics. For example, by emotional strategy, psychology means coping strategies individuals use to solve personal and interpersonal problems, whereas political communication studies uses the expression to cover politicians’ efforts to arouse or alleviate citizens’ emotions. We suppose that the way forward is not through the separate definitions of each concepts but the delineation of a whole network of terms applied so far and to be used in the research to come. EXPRIMER, therefore, integrates several concepts under the umbrella of expressivity in politics. A strong conceptual foundation on which further theoretical developments can be built and validated is a strong requirement. It is imperative to clarify the conceptual and empirical relationship between emotional speech, incivility and outrage discourses. Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the research, a harmonization of terminologies is necessary. The experiences of expressive politics are so recent that so far no standard theoretical approaches, research questions and operationalisations have developed in political science nor in the fellow disciplines.
The research question
Our project is driven by the question as follows:
What are the main forms of expressive political communication in Hungary?
We ground our conceptual approach on Roman Jacobson’s model which defines multiple functions of communication. The informative function has received a considerable amount of scholarly attention, whilst the so-called expressive function has mostly been neglected in political sciences. Expressive function refers to the speakers’ ability to use political language to demonstrate feelings, beliefs and opinions towards the topic of the communication. The expressive function is especially dominant when the utterance is oriented towards the communicator of the message: e.g. his/her feelings and the way he/she expresses himself/herself. The Jacobson model opens the door to an interdisciplinary and multi-method research strategy which combines different approaches of social sciences.
As a complementary conceptual category, we rely on the notion of popularization as well. Inspired by John Street’s thoughs on the relationship between popular culture and politics, EXPRIMER project is led by the recognition of politics’ unpopularity, and the desire of political actors to repopularize it through the styles and platforms provided by popular culture. Expressivity therefor can be considered as a key indicator for the popularizion via introducting vernacular languages and style into the realm of politcs.
The project responds to the conceptual and methodological challenges of researching emotions, incivility, outrage discourses by initiating two streams of research which will provide new insights into the expressivity in politics.
Research Stream no 1: emotive stream
The role that emotions play in shaping individual political behaviour is increasingly well researched. Although the expression of anger, fear, anxiety and disappointment is easier to recognise in opinion formation about politics, it is imperative to look at the expression of joy, high spirits, love, tender feelings and devotion as well. To do so, we will monitor the communicative activities of politicians, news media journalists, and citizens in order to quantify the extent and qualify the characteristics of the emotive ways of talking about politics. The project will cover the incivility and outrage discourses amongst the members of the political elite. In parallel to this, we will examine the extent and patterns of incivility in the comment sections on social media as well. EXPRIMER will also studying how political messages evokes emotional responses among voters. It is imperative to provide contextual background about the role of affects in people’s cognition in politics from the perspective election campaigning. In addition, the project wants to go beyond the textual-centric research design by including the analysis of visual elements of expressions into the study as well. A variety of methods will be employed in conducting researches on the role of emotions, such as qualitative and quantitative content analysis, and sentiment analysis.
Research Stream no 2: performative stream
Emotionalism is, however, just one of the streams in the research. There is a pressing need to discover the expressivity from the perspective of journalistic role performance. It is especially valid claim regarding Hungary where news media have a long tradition of partisanship and contemporary form of journalism (digital journalism, for example) tend to mix the information and opinion, objective and subjective reflections in covering politics. The concept of journalistic voice recently gained attention in comparative journalism research because existing literature highlights objectivity and impartiality as dominant journalistic principles that per definition limit the expression of journalists’ own voices in news stories – for example in the expression of journalists’ opinion. Interventionism is defined as journalist-centred role performance, in which the news professionals have a voice in the story and act as advocates for different groups in society. Interventionism becomes widespread as the vast majority of the news media journalists has been moving beyond the Anglo-Saxon norm of neutrality and objectivity by doing honest coming outs with their political and cultural dispositions. We will be addressing the question about the extent to which interventionism, incivility and emotion-oriented journalistic voices can be empirically identified in Hungary. The performative stream of the project is designed to assess the changes in role performance by researching the manifestation of expressive journalistic voice in news media content. The chosen methods are content analysis and web-based questionaire with journalists.
Implementation of the proposed project
The EXPRIMER project consists of five work packages concerning the substantive part of the research. All the WPs are carefully conceptualised and highlight their special focus on expressivity with research questions and methodology. The first work package is to define the conceptual background of expressivity in politics. The second and the third work packages are problem-oriented: WP2 discusses the incivility and outrage discourses in politics, it concentrates on the discursive mechanisms, whilst WP3 provides an actor-centric view by focusing on politicians and citizens. WP3 is designed to study how politicians use emotions and expressivity strategically in campaigning and trying to gain electoral support. As a complementary activity, WP3 will provide insight into the expressive and affective reaction of voters to political messages. Another group of actors is in the portfolio of WP4 where the journalistic role performances will be under scrutiny throughout the empirical investigations. Last but not least, we dedicate WP5 to the issue of iconography that requires innovative method and new approaches to political science. In the framework of WP5 empirical researchers will provide methodological support for WP2, WP3 and WP4 as well.
In addition to the substantive WPs, EXPRIMER will include project management which is to monitor and supervise the progress of the project in administrative, technical, legal and financial terms, ensuring the highest quality of project implementation and its outcomes. The dissemination of the outcomes will be supported by the communication activities which focuses on the international academic community and beyond.