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Review: Media and Political Engagement. The Role of Identity

"It is the engagement of citizens that gives democracy its legitimacy as well as its vitality."  Peter Dahlgren.

The social, cultural, political and technological conditions that underpin democracy are in transition. Dahlgren's book Media and Political Engagement provides a useful overview of the changes taking place. It also sets out a framework for understanding how the media influences and shapes political engagement.

By taking a culturalist approach Dahlgren highlights the role of identity and emotion in political engagement. This contrasts with the vision of Habermas, and the advocates of deliberative democracy, where political deliberation is rational with impartial reasoning.

In Dahlgren's view "to be engaged in something signals not just just cognitive engagement but affective investment. Engagement in politics involves some kind of passion." (p83).  This focus on identity and emotionality can provide insights into events such as Brexit that cannot be gained from more traditional democratic theory, with its emphasis on rationality and formal reason.

Citizen Engagement and Legitimacy

The most compelling principle for legitimacy is "the consent of the people". (Held, 2006:ix) However, in western democracies there have been declines in voter turnouts, party loyalties and trust in politicians. Turnout in the 2014 European Union elections for example was just 42% across all countries.

There has been an assumption that democracy's current problems stem from too little civic engagement and that "one of the imperative needs of democratic countries is to improve citizens' capacities to engage intelligently in political life." (Robert Dahl 1998, p187-188)

In examining this issue of engagement Dahlgren draws on political communication and public sphere approaches but also on culturalist approachesThis highlights the idea of sense-making agents such as identity and the subjective reality of citizenship, and how these may impact on participation.

The Rise of Neoliberalism and Market Logic 

There is a dichotomy in democratic capitalism. Capitalism generates social power which is largely beyond democratic control. As Dahlgren notes that "whereas equality is one of the ideal pillars of democracy, inequality is often the societal byproduct of capitalism."

Western liberal democracy tried to address this dichotomy by regulating capitalism. However, since the 1980s the rise of neoliberalism has bought with it deregulation and given market forces and private enterprise greater power to shape society.

This has also led to the growth of economism which asserts the primacy of economic criteria over other modes of reasoning. Democratic values and a public culture of service, equality and citizenship are being replaced by corporate values and market logic such as efficiency and profitability. Dahlgren gives the example of a school head or principal where the role is now less about pedagogic leadership and more managerial efficiency, about running a business.

The political elites are losing power relative to the economic elites. Dalhgren notes that this moves citizens further away from centres of economic decision making.

Socio-Cultural Turbulence

Dahlgren identifies some key cultural changes that are creating turbulence for democracy:

Cultural dispersion. Societies are becoming more pluralistic and differentiated which can reflect class, ethnicity, media consumption, cultural interests and life styles. As a consequence shared political horizons can become harder to establish. Increased fragmentation can lead to a decline in social trust which inhibits participation.

Erosion of traditional institutions. Institutions have less impact on socialising the individual such as families, schools churches, unions and political parties. While Sorbom (2002) found that political commitments at a personal level have grown, he also found that commitments to parties and traditional social movements have declined.

Individualisation. A growing sense of personal autonomy and lack of support for authority. Sunstein (2007) points out we can now structure our own news packages on the internet, the 'daily me'. This can render the public sphere a very personal and individual one.

Emerging network character of society. There is a growing prominence of networks in almost all domains of social life. However, primary relationships, such as family, do not seem eroded by the growth of network contacts.

The internet. The internet is having a significant impact on democracy. This is not a technological determinist view but reflects the fact the internet is part of a wide range of socio-cultural factors which interact with each other.

Many observers feel that the internet's most decisive role could be alternative politics, such as the growth of advocacy and single issue politics. The internet provides activist groups with inexpensive, fast and simple means for mass communication. It is not surprising to Dahlgren that the rise in alternative single issue politics coincided with the rise of the internet.

The Media

Media is changing, there is a proliferation of communication channels, globalisation, privatisation of the media space, deregulation, digitalization and convergence of media. Dahlgren refers to the 'internetization' of the media. While this may be a clumsy phrase it sums up much of the change taking place.

There is little doubt that audiences are becoming more fragmented. There is also a decline in news reading, especially among the young. In 1966, 60 per cent of US first-year university students believed that following news was important. By 2003 that figure had dropped to 34 per cent. (Cornog, 2005)

There is a widely held view that journalism is declining as an information source. Along with multiple channels and sources, there has been a tabloidisation of the media. A focus on less serious stories and entertainment. Journalists often report political issues with a focus on drama, sensationalism and scandal. In trying to be a watchdog journalists have often adopted an antagonistic approach which constantly questions the honesty of politicians. Dahlgren notes there is "some justification to the claim that the media foster a popular contempt for politicians."

Bennet goes further and argues current news journalism may be detrimental to the needs of democracy (The Politics of Illusion, 2006) Others are more optimistic and believe that journalism can still nourish democracy if it contains relevant information that is useful to citizens. Schudson also adds that "journalists can educate audiences to the benefits of reliable, in-depth news reporting, analysis and commentary." (The Sociology of news, 2003 p126.)

Dahlgren notes that popularisation is not always bad if brings news to more people in more accessible ways. It actually may engage people that feel excluded by more high brow formats. The challenge though is "to develop new popular forms that will both resonate with large audiences and also communicate in meaningful ways about important matters." (p47)

Growth of Global Versus National 

Being a citizen is a legal framework that underpins democracy. Citizenship is almost always linked to the nation state and national democratic systems.

The sovereignty of these national democratic systems is being undermined by global capitalism.  The requirements of global companies and global markets increasingly compete with national political systems. The internet is a decisive element in the dynamics of this global capitalism (Schiller 1999).

We can see among many working class people a defensive nationalism which they deploy to protect them from aspects of globalization. This may help explain some of the support for Brexit and Trump in the US.

The New Working Class and the Distancing of Citizens

The health of democracy is being undermined by low wages, insecurity, declining social services and growing class divisions. Despite a growth in employment many people still live in poverty and uncertainty.  Dahlgren notes the structural instability of the middle and working class is leading to the growth of resentment, bitterness and powerlessness. For more see my post on the new working class.

Dahlgren argues that as the democratic elites become more concerned with the underclass, immigrants and the socially problematic, the working class and lower middle class turn rightward. "We see populist responses from citizens who feel abandoned by elites and who seek security and stability."  We can see this across the US and Europe. The everyday realities and struggles of life distance people from political life and engenders a growing contempt for the political class.

We need to recognise that for some, refusing to engage with politics or the public sphere can be a conscious political act.

Civic Agency and Opportunities for Participation

Dahlgren asserts "the fundamental role of journalism is to link citizens to political life." (p48) However, a major problem identified by Couldry, Livingstone and Markham (2007) is there are few opportunities for civic action even if you are following a story. Thus media engagement may not become participation and we should not confuse these two aspects.

If citizens see few possibilities to participate the danger is they will not see themselves as engaged citizens.

Identity and Engagement

To Dahlgren identity is "the most compelling link between civic cultures and the sense of agency that engages people and can help turn them into political participants." (p123) To him "citizenship is central to issues of social belonging and participation." He believes "that in order to be able to act as a citizen, to participate in achieved citizenship, it is necessary to see oneself as a citizen." (p63)

Dahlgren argues the process of 'becoming citizens', of socially and culturally developing civic identities, is an important dimension to the sociology of democracy. He uses a constructionist perspective that tries to take into account how people actually become civic agents, how they self-create themselves as citizens.

In essence citizenship is a dimension of identity. We all have multiple identities including national citizenship identities. The notion of identity is based in cultural theory and "to the extent that citizenship relates to identity, it must resonate in some way with emotionality, ..our identities are never merely the product of our rational thought." (p64) In practical terms, identities develop and evolve through experience and experience is emotionally based.

Dahlgren points out that in our everyday lives we make sense of our experiences using a combination of our head and our heart. This is the same in the public sphere. Democratic theory puts a strong emphasis on rationality and formal reason. But to be engaged in political life is more than cognitive attention but an affective investment. "Engagement in politics involves some kind of passion" (p83) Thus engagement cannot be solely understood in rationalist terms although passions also have reasons.

To Fukuyama identity politics "explains much as what is going on" in global and political affairs currently. (See my review of Fukuyama's latest essay on how identity politics is driving current polarisation in politics.)  He believes that political leaders are mobilising groups based on identities, often it is an appeal to restore a notion of dignity, to gain respect or to be heard. This mobilisation is based as much on passion and emotion as it is on reason. It may help explain why during the Brexit vote the Remain campaign's focus on rational economic logic failed to cut through with many voters.

Civic Cultures Framework

To provide us with a method for understanding what shapes engagement Dahlgren develops a civic cultures framework. This approach draws on political communication, the public sphere and culturalist approaches. The framework sets out the factors that can shape civic agency and comprises six dimensions:
  • Knowledge - Citizens need knowledge in order to participate politically.
  • Values - Democracy will not function without values. Substantive values include equality, liberty, justice, and tolerance. Procedural values include the willingness to follow democratic principles and procedures, including openness, reciprocity and discussion.
  • Trust - There need to be minimum levels of trust, though Dahlgren notes that "trust with a built-in antenna for scepticism seems prudent."
  • Spaces - Citizens must be able to encounter each other and communicate. The internet makes it potentially easy to construct new spaces.
  • Practices - This is closely linked with the knowledge dimension. Citizens need competences for democratic practices such as reading and navigating the internet. Recurring practices include voting in elections.
  • Identities - In essence people's subjective view of themselves as members and participants of democracy. 
Dahlgren agrees with Castells (2000) that identities are the centerpiece of civic cultures and identity is the most important of the six dimensions in driving engagement and political participation. Identities are important as it is difficult to feel empowered if one is alone. Identities may be drawn around temporary issues or be based on more fundamental elements of identity such as ethnicity, religion and sexuality.

Dahlgren argues that civic cultures require minimal shared commitments to democracy and the capacity to see beyond the immediate interests of one's own group. Touraine (2002) argues communities of identity may pose a fundamental challenge to democracy, and how it deals with equality and difference. Fukuyama is also concerned by the current fragmentation of identities and believes democracies need to promote  “creedal national identities” which are built not around shared personal characteristics, lived experiences, historical ties, or religious convictions but rather around core values and beliefs.


Dahlgren concludes his book by emphasising the importance of engagement and participation: "Democracy simply cannot exist without input from its citizens - their participation." (p202) His development of a more culturalist approach to engagement, where notions of identity are central, is a useful framework to explore the current political landscape.