By Daniel Kreiss
In Ground Wars, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen makes an important contribution in revealing and analyzing an important trend in political campaigning that has taken shape over the last two decades: the increasing investment in face-to-face political communication through field efforts. Nielsen describes how over-saturation in advertising markets, media fragmentation, and signature social science field experiments have lead to candidates at all levels of office engaging in “ground wars” fought by volunteers and paid canvassers going door-to-door to identify the partisan affiliations of and deliver messages to voters—all in the hope of bringing sympathizers to the polls on election day. In light of these findings, Nielsen shows how much political communication scholars have overlooked in focusing so much attention on television advertising and press coverage. Indeed, Nielsen shows how extraordinarly “mediated” political communication actually is at the congressional level, where candidates have small advertising budgets and receive scant coverage from journalists. Even more, in an era when numerous sociologists, communication scholars (including myself), and political scientists have focused on new and social media as the primary drivers of electoral innovation and mobilization, Nielsen reveals the enormous time and effort campaigns and the parties in service to them have spent building technical and organizational infrastructures to gather and coordinate the necessary labor required to deliver messages to voters.
One of the signature achievements of this book is methodological. For one, by engaging in participant observation Nielsen reveals both the strategies of campaigns and the divergent springs of civic participation, as committed partisans, volunteers with high-minded ideals, and paid canvassers working for hourly wages gather and enact their democratic roles under radically different logics. Even more, Nielsen’s careful case selection makes Ground Wars a more representative study of contemporary electoral campaigns than scholarship that focuses on extraordinary efforts such as well-resourced presidential campaigns like Obama’s 2008 run, which are few and far between. Through a careful design that is clearly specified in a brilliant methodological section that should be required reading in qualitative methods seminars, Nielsen provides a rich empirical portrait of actually existing democracy.
What is the state of this actually existing democracy? There is both reason for optimism and pessimism. For one, Nielsen shows how the same democratic practices (such as canvassing) are performed under radically different logics, from civic ideals to market transactions. Compared with “air wars” conducted through broadcast advertising and attempts at gaining earned media, ordinary citizens both can participate, and (looked at most charitably) low-income citizens even receive subsidies to do so. Normatively, these forms of participation, even at their most scripted, are desirable according to many democratic philosophies (although Jeffrey Green and Jeffrey Alexander have both sought to reevaluate the virtues of spectatorship). The voices of citizens, from campaign workers and volunteers to paid canvassers, often diverge from the scripts provided by campaigns—no matter how strategically they seek to use people as media. Canvassers talk to people not on voter lists, go off-message, provide poor information, engage in authentic dialogue, and record shoddy data, despite the best efforts of harried field staffers. Even more, at least at the level of comparatively under-funded congressional campaigns, as party infrastructures have eroded staffers are reliant on struggles to mobilize the resources of vast and messy assemblages cobbled together from party networks made up of many actors with often divergent goals. In revealing the actual contexts of democratic engagement, Nielsen’s work offers an important corrective to many accounts that suggest how data and its associated technologies of targeting and tailoring are denuding the polity of robust discursive forms.
Despite this, it is not clear that these sorts of civic participation further the democratic ideals of equality and voice. Nielsen shows how in the realm of institutional politics ground wars are about turning out partisans, weakly committed sympathizers, and, at times, making persuasive appeals. These forms of civic engagement do not necessarily further the political voice of the powerless, as inequalities exist in the aggregate both among who participates and, more importantly, who possess the capital to contribute. Even more, Nielsen makes the important point that campaign assemblages are temporal and instrumental entities, with clear metrics for success, and lack the institutionalized forms of democratic decision-making that characterized the parties of yore with established foundations that persisted across election cycles and imparted civic skills. In other words, these forms of civic engagement may matter to the individuals and campaigns involved, but perhaps not in the way of creating stronger representative systems or policy outcomes that are responsive to the needs of Americans without the time or especially the financial resources to influence policy makers. Still, Nielsen offers a useful quotation from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days—“There is so little one can do. One does it all. All one can”—to capture what he characterizes as “the strange practicality, power, and potential pointlessness of personalized political communication—and politics more broadly—especially in its tentative, hesitating, doubtful claim that one does all one can.”
Empirically, then, this is a study of what political actors do when they try to do all they can. Through the lens of this unfolding presidential race, Nielsen provides a framework for understanding and interpreting the enormous investments in practical citizen activity that campaigns are making in field campaigning, as well as the extraordinary behind the scenes infrastructure-building, technical development, and organizational-planning that it is premised upon. As Nielsen suggests, the actual electoral work during this campaign cycle is decades in the making. Understanding this work, and the comparative strategies of each party, requires both an appreciation of the history of these electoral efforts and close, in-depth observation of the prevailing ways that Americans connect with and enact democracy.
In the end, Nielsen’s book shows how much of what we think of as “political communication” proceeds through campaigns using humans as media. It is striking that considerable technological change is being tied to those oldest forms of political mediation: human voices and flesh.
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