Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Apparent King and Queen of Silence in Politics

When public opinion has it that politics these days involve too much blabla (instead of ‘real action’) and spin communication (instead of ‘real information’), is there some potential for communicative restraint to attract attention and to inspire trust?

In the case of Angela Merkel, it seems to work. Her popularity is stable and ongoing, and it has been noted over and over again already since the last federal election in 2009 that silence is the main marker of her communication strategy. Most commentators see her silence as a deliberate strategy and not symptomatic of a lack of ideas. Some see positive potential in it: retaining scope for action and maintaining harmony. Others perceive it as lack of leadership and potentially devious, e.g. in removing political opponents by silent  scheming rather than open confrontation. Especially during the 2009 election campaign, Merkel’s communicative restraint was frequently commented on; some pointing out how successful her strategy of buffering any attempts at engaging in serious competitive confrontation about conflicting political ideas was, others complaining that this strategy was detrimental to democracy itself – by witholding information people would have needed to make use of their constitutional entitlement to vote between alternatives. In 2013, the campaign and the comments on it look much the same as four years ago; here is an English article on the Spiegel magazine’s homepage http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/chancellor-merkel-hits-the-campaign-trail-with-silence-a-916768.html suggesting this and supposing that Merkel’s strategy of silence will probably work out once more while remaining ambivalent in its evaluation of it.

As for the King of Silence in Politics, I just came across criticism of the new Australian PM Tony Abbott for unresponsiveness for which he seems to have come under criticism; see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB7cVFY_LCg. In both Merkel’s and Abbott’s cases, the problem seems to be a perceived lack of accountability, prerhaps more pressing in Tony Abbott’s case where he can be obersved to lack or refuse response and engagement with the public in concrete situations. So far, Merkel’s silence is considered an overall strategy with a soothing or narcotic effect; her communicative restraint is an overall tactic and characteristic feature, but she would not easily be observed being rude and unresponsive to journalists. It will be interesting to see whether parts of the public who feel they are fed up with too much blabla, spin and media hype in politics are ready to accept such displays of an attitude of withdrawal and disengagement of politicians facing journalists’ questions, or if the prestige of critical, investigative journalism and adversarial questions weighs more. It may also be that different attitudes towards secrecy and openness are embedded in different political alignments.

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This was inspired by a few things in the VOIDS exhibition catalogue (see bibliography, eds. Clive Phillpot, Mathieu Copeland, Mai-Thu Perret 2009) and by exposure to institutional management ‘consultation’ procedures.