Ground Wars on the road (February round-up)

In the past three weeks, I’ve given my first three talks about Ground Wars, one at my launch here in Oxford at the Rothermere American Institute, one at Royal Holloway, and one at the University of  Westminster. It’s been good turnout and great discussions all around.

It’s been really interesting to see what people pick up and the directions the conversations take—the concept of “personalized political communication”, the instrumental use of people as media for political purposes through for example door-to-door canvassing has generally been well received, as has the notion that we need to pay more systematic attention to how such forms of campaign communication operate and how they complement and interact with other forms we already know much more about, most notably mass media and computer-mediated/online political communication.

One of the things that have been particularly good about talking about Ground Wars here in the UK is the range of different experiences people bring to the discussion. This has really brought out all the comparative questions the book raises, comparative between local and national, between points in time, and across countries. The discussions have been wide-ranging, from a student at Royal Holloway who won a seat in local government walking door-to-door with volunteers who talked about his experience, over faculty members who had canvassed from the 1970s onwards and talked about that, to people from India to Germany who could describe how things are done there.

Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done comparatively on personalized political communication, to what extent is it used, why and with what strategic objectives in mind, how is it organized and targeted, who are the people involved and their motivations, what are the differences in how well it works, the implications for democracy in different contexts and for different actors, and so on. Darren Lilleker (who has written a nice review of the book) has alerted me to one if his pieces that touch on some of this–and there are others. (One book I read and re-read while I worked on mine was Javier Auyero’s masterful study of Poor People’s Politics in the barrios of Buenos Aries.) There is much to be done here and I hope to begin some of that myself, having already dipped my toes in by doing a bit of fieldwork during the 2011 Danish general election.

Another area where it is also clear to me my work on personalized political communication can be extended is in terms of a more explicit and clearer analysis of the power relations between the staffers, volunteers, and part-timers involved in ground wars (relations that are also encoded into some of the various tools and technologies they rely on). Andy Chadwick rightly pushed me a bit on this point in the discussion at Royal Holloway, arguing that my argument is not always equally explicit about this. I’ve written elsewhere about what I call the “co-production of citizenship” in political campaigns, playing off Philip Howard’s notion of “managed citizenship”, and continue to think that the degree of control political operatives have over their surroundings is frequently overstated–but it is quite important to underline that the absence of complete hierarchical control over campaign assemblages and their environs should not be confused with the absence of power asymmetries, only as an indication that everyone involved have a degree of autonomy. Power in campaigns is, in short, about control, forcing people to act in certain ways, but it is not only about control–it is also enabling (nod here to Michel Foucault), about allowing people to become more active and effective citizens in certain ways. This is a theme I hope to explore more when I find the time to re-read my copius field notes from the time I spent on the campaign trail in 2008.

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