Politics as Unusual: In Jamaica, Elections Are Becoming Sensationalistic Political Spectacles. How Can Resource-Limited Organizations Get an Accurate Picture of Public Opinion?

Article excerpt

Like it or not, media marketing strategies used in the business and political worlds are becoming more and more similar. Today's political consultants--entrusted with the tricky task of trying to sell politicians and policies to fiche electorates--increasingly find themselves applying the same communication strategies that have worked well for the corporate world selling products to consumers.

Historically, this convergence of corporate and political communication strategies arrived first in the advanced industrial democracies--in Europe, the U.S., Japan and Australia. In the post-World War II period, rapid development in those countries of new technologies such as television, photocopying, faxing, personal computers and the Internet spawned an accelerating "telecommunications revolution," which, in turn, accelerated the process of globalization. While this electronic revolution in telecommunications has been slower to reach developing countries like Jamaica due to resource mitations, its impact is now unmistakable here as well. As elsewhere, business and political communication in Jamaica have come to resemble each other.

Of course, this was not always the case. For centuries, most of the communication between candidates and voters took place through the media of political parties and organized interest groups. Political practices were local, and political organizing was labor-intensive, rather than capital-intensive. Skillful organizing, exhaustive door-to-door footwork and mobilizing bodies to participate directly in key political events were the keys to victory. The central strategists and planners of that day were the party leaders and political bosses, who wielded most of the influence and orchestrated communication with the populace through word of mouth, banners, pamphlets and newspapers.

With the advent of advanced telecommunications technologies, however, what it takes to win politically changed dramatically. The influence of parties, interest groups and political bosses began to recede, upstaged by the rising professions of political consulting, opinion polling and image management.

Though there have been delays due to its impoverished, developing-nation status, Jamaica, like other democracies in Latin America and the Caribbean, has witnessed the slow, steady emergence of American-style postmodern politics. With the growing reliance among its middle and upper classes on television, computers, mobile phones and the Internet, the realities of Jamaican electoral politics are becoming more technological and more mass-mediated.

In this altered, electronic environment, strategically timed national opinion polls and symbolic media messages crafted by political consultants have become almost as important in shaping Jamaican voters' views of their world as the more tangible realities of economic conditions and class interests. Grassroots organizing and the material conditions of life still obviously matter--one is constantly reminded of the existence of widespread poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption. But the political momentum gained by Jamaican politicians in recent elections has been won through mass persuasion and through carefully staged televised political performances--not as a result of delivering tangible benefits (which are scarce) to the electorate. In postmodern electoral contests, a pivotal source of power and strategic advantage belongs to whoever "defines the reality"--that is, whoever is in a position to frame the media debates over social issues and determine which interpretations are appropriate to place on the national agenda for public consideration. He or she who "defines" (via opinion surveys and mass electronic media) wins.

Electronic trends

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Murray Edelman points out in Constructing the Political Spectacle, like it or not, in Jamaica as elsewhere, these postmodern-era elections are becoming sensationalistic political spectacles. …