‘The government is coming across many veto players’
Mario Riorda, political strategy and communication specialist
By Tomás Brockenshire
A prolific consultant, author and academic specialising in political communication, Mario Riorda spends a great deal of time crisscrossing the map, addressing audiences eager to hear his analysis of the intersection of politics and communication.
So much so that his Córdoba accent has faded slightly.
But what he has lost in that aspect he makes up for in his dissection of how the phenomena of governments, public agenda, public policy and elections intersect. Author of the recently released Cambiando: el eterno comienzo de la Argentina, Riorda spoke to the Herald about his book and analysed the first year of the Mauricio Macri administration.
What was the motivation for you to write this book?
There are three elements, that have to do with the three parts of the book. First, to try to explain that in Argentina there are “good guys and bad guys” and “bad guys and good guys” depending on your perspective and in that sense, it is probably a serious political mistake to think that there is a single Argentina, because I think that there are multiple Argentinas. And if you look at it from an electoral point of view, various electorates. The temptation is to think that the electorate is a single whole and that’s an error. And as such the first part of the book addresses that and how it can affect public life and political communication, bearing in mind that not all communication is political but that all politics is presented, represented and is made public by way of a communicative format.
The second section addresses a range of trends that in some ways are not unique to Argentina, nor with regard to the Let’s Change (Cambiemos) government, but that have to do with many issues in the Western world, concerning political science or political communication. And the third section, with the help of more than 30 political scientists, sociologists and communication specialists to sketch out what the Let’s Change style is, so to say.
The government started its term with a series of big decisions but it has recently had setbacks in Congress…
I would say that is the price that it is paying to obtain governance. And in economic terms, that is debt, a budget deficit and basically some agreements that are more and more costly in terms of political and economic resources with the players that have veto power. These are players who do not have the specific ability to impose their preferences but do have the power to block what the government wants. The government is coming across many veto players, such as the social movements and the unions, business groups, governors or society itself which is looking for specific or particular measures. If the government begins to be reactive to veto players, there is not much margin for the government to impose its agenda.
Do you think that the government came across more veto players than it had anticipated?
First, the government presented the idea that it would be easy to establish governance even if it had a minority in Congress. Secondly, it gave off the feeling — without saying so — that it represented a giant leap forward in terms of the style of communication. Third, and this it did say, it was going to control the economy not with ease but at least with some clarity, which is different.
And I think that the scenario has been inverted. At the beginning it obtained governance with relative ease, and it faced great difficulties with the economy and it was not so virtuous from a communication point of view. I would say this — the self-generation of objectives that are hard to meet increase even further the level of expectations that this government already has. I think that the title of the book has a lot to do with the bombast and perhaps democratic irresponsibility of the electoral messages that have been sent out, offering to act basically as a circumstantial messiah to all of the problems, as if “history began with me.”
This is an Argentine problem that dates back to the first slogan of this democratic phase — Alfonsín’s “with democracy you eat, you educate, you cure” to the more recent “revolution of happiness” all of them have had the same problem. After 12 years of the same government I think that the current government had very high expectations and instead of moderating them — and because of anxiety or political needs — they generated more expectations to the point that they were overblown that today is very dangerous. Curiously, I think that the only consolidated majority in favour of the government is the extra patience that Argentines are having with the government, even in a complex economic situation.
How about the communication of those failures?
It’s very interesting. I have been watching this closely. One of the slogans that the government has been very successful in promoting, with a lot of positive feedback, is that it will tell the truth. To tell the truth was associated with the visibilisation of statistics that had been manipulated in the past. But it began to not tell the truth systematically and to deny some mistakes, announcing that the economy is growing or that green shoots were appearing in the economy, for example. These denials are focused primarily in the areas of the economy and production, which clash with reality.
Since its creation, the PRO has sought to portray itself as breaking with the status quo. Now that it controls the City of Buenos Aires, the province of Buenos Aires and the national government, does it not have an incentive to adopt some of the elements of a traditional party?
I think that in some way or another it is doing what every party does once it comes to power in very atypical conditions, such as the case of Let’s Change. Charles Péguy said that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” and I think that PRO is starting to find the necessity of politics and a territorial presence, or visibility on the streets, and that is a factor that goes beyond the use of social networks.
Do you think that the internal tension within the PRO, between the side presenting innovation and the other favouring politics as usual, will continue in the years to come?
That tension will continue not only within the PRO but also within Let’s Change. Let’s not forget that the Radicals have a history of territorial presence. And beyond the canvassing and doorbell ringing, the presence of Radicals at the territorial level is very much in existence. So I have no doubts about the “politicisation” of this novel approach that the PRO has sought to portray. What is needed is not new or old politics, but just politics.
Do you think that being in power establishes uniform patterns of behaviour for parties?
No, I don’t know if power establishes uniform patterns but being in power requires all kind of political tools. Engaging in negotiations and having a territorial presence are part of those tools.
What kind of an electoral campaign do you think we can expect for the 2017 midterms?
If you look at what was the most effective tactic for the Victory Front in 2015 during the runoff, it was the so-called “campaign of fear.” And fear is one of the forms of negative communication, which is generally most effective when there are high levels of polarisation, public policies that are failing or public figures that have high negative approval ratings.
I think that the three elements are present, and I think that it will be a very intense and very negative campaign. If you look at what happened in the United States, there were very high levels of ideology, the use of taboo subjects, personal attacks, emotion, absence of rational and reliable information and an overabundance of poor information, hyperpersonalism, lots of use of social networks.
That is a cocktail that I had been describing for Latin America and it all came together at the same time in one country. I think Argentina and the region are going to go toward campaigns, given the current context, that will have lots in common with that phenomenon.
Born: Hernando, Córdoba, May 15, 1972
Lives in: Córdoba, but travels 300 days a year
Currently reading: Between 15 and 20 books or academic papers simultaneously, mostly focusing on political science, political communication or digital communication.
Publications: Cambiando: el eterno comienzo de la Argentina (“Changing: Argentina’s eternal beginning”), Comunicación Gubernamental 360 (“360 Goverment Communication,” 2013), ¡Ey, Las Ideologías Existen! Comunicación Política Y Campañas Electorales En América Latina (“Hey, ideologies exist! Political communication and electoral campaigns in Latin America”, 2012), among others.