Pope Francis offers a pointed criticism of modern politics in his recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, which examines the failure of human-kind to work together to solve global crises.
In a brief overview of trends that have led to this failure, the Holy Father writes,
“Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.” (Fratelli tutti, 15)
As a Catholic and political marketing professional, this indictment has been a cause for reflection.
Degradation of Political Life
It’s easy to criticize political parties for coarsening the public discourse, but it’s naive to think they are ultimately responsible. Politicians and their campaigns follow the path of least resistance to what their voters want. The tone Pope Francis decries in this paragraph is merely a reflection back to us of what we want.
Algorithmic-driven media further exacerbates this effect by incentivizing politicians to reach more voters at lower cost when they prey upon our greatest fears.
Pope Francis echoes another common refrain about negative campaigning. The reality is that elections are zero-sum which means one candidate or party cannot win without the other losing. With a finite pool of voters, it’s therefore essential that contrasts between candidates are exposed and discussed.
Of course, this must be done in good faith and avoiding calumny against one’s opponents, but it cannot be eliminated outright.
Campaigns strive to reach the right voter at the right moment on the right medium with the right message from the right messenger. This is political marketing. Done properly, this relies on a direct relationship with individual voters, facilitated through technology.
Candidates are far more engaged with their constituencies today. It is easier than ever before to know the opinions of broad groups of citizens. Increasingly, manipulative political marketing actually backfires against its perpetrators.
Making Better Voters
If candidates and political parties primarily reflect the desires of voters, then those wishing to elevate our discourse must start with them. The Church is uniquely positioned to improve the public discourse simply by evangelization.
A person striving to live in the imitation of Christ will avoid spreading information that is false, not contribute to uncivil discourse, and seek the common good.