Who killed civic engagement? During the 1990s multiple voices on both sides of the Atlantic have blamed campaign communications for fuelling public cynicism. In particular, political actor accounts claim that links between politicians and voters have been weakened by the adoption of professional marketing techniques, including the melange of spin, packaging and pollsters. In contrast, media actor accounts hold journalistic practices in campaign coverage liable for growing public disengagement from civic affairs, and this thesis has developed into something of an unquestioned orthodoxy in the popular literature. The arguments are hardly new, but are these claims correct? Previous work by the author has argued that the process of campaign communications by politicians and journalists has not contributed to civic disengagement (Norris 2000). This chapter, based on analysis of long-term trends in political communications in US election campaigns from the Eisenhower era in 1952 until the Bush-Gore contest in 2000, confirms that the indictment remains unproven. The chapter draws upon fifty years of National Election Surveys. Many popular commentators suggest that the US public was exceptionally disenchanted by the 2000 presidential election but, in contrast, this chapter demonstrates that (1) contrary to popular opinion, the electorate did not display exceptional levels of disaffection in the 2000 campaign, in fact according to the standard indicators, American faith and confidence in government have been progressively restored in successive elections from 1994 to 2000; (2) overall levels of political activism, interest in elections and public affairs, and attention to the news media display trendless fluctuations in successive US campaigns during the last twenty years, not a steady secular decline; and lastly that (3) at individual level, channels of campaign communications directly initiated by politicians and indirectly mediated by journalists are positively associated with levels of civic engagement.
To develop this argument, the next section briefly summarizes the theoretical framework, including conceptual models of how the process of political communications in election campaigns has been transformed over the years and theories about how these developments may have fuelled