The President of Mexico’s press conferences, Andrés Manuel López Obrador -AMLO-, are a tremendous communicative failure, but a resounding propagandistic success.
If they were a laborious exercise in government communication, they would seek to persuade society of the pertinence of the president’s decisions through the use of arguments and truthful data. If the president considered the media to be legitimate interlocutors, the conferences would be an exercise in accountability. And if they took citizens into account, then they would serve their needs for access to information. But those purposes are not what AMLO is about.
Truthfulness does not reign in such conferences. The firm SPIN Comunicación has found that, from December 3, 2018, to July 10, 2020, the president made 29,703 untrue statements, an average of 73 per conference. The president’s constant attacks on the media reveal that he does not value them as a legitimate interlocutor, but rather as a mere instrument to spread his sayings. The conferences are also not a window to government information, since when faced with formal citizen requests, the most common response from the Office of the Presidency has been that such information is “non-existent”. This means that many of the president’s words are not supported by verifiable public information.
However, presidential approval polls show again and again that these conferences are a propaganda success. A key factor for this is that AMLO’s communication exhibits what analyst Catherine Fieschi identifies as the four great attractions of populism: simplicity, immediacy, transparency, and authenticity.
Simplicity.- In his conferences, the president does not speak for the elites, but his followers. Instead of information, he gives them a story in which the “people” fight against all kinds of villains, personified in the “corrupt ex-presidents,” the “rapacious businessmen,” the “hypocritical intellectuals,” the “sold out press,” the “neoliberal technocrats,” the “organizations manipulated by foreign interests” and a long etcetera. With rhetorical resources like ad hominem fallacies (attacking people instead of refuting their arguments) and simple phrases repeated in a disciplined manner, he manages to get his story across and stay in the minds of millions.
Imediacy. – The conferences confirm a fundamental political belief of the Mexican: to solve the country’s problems, the president wants to solve them. AMLO, as the wise kings of stories did, learns about the country’s issues at the conferences through the statements of those attending, and he begins to say what he thinks and feels. As he pontificates, the action that the government will take is defined. Moving resources here, resolving conflicts there, dialoguing with some, investigating, and threatening others. “To govern does not have much science,” AMLO has said, and in the conferences, he demonstrates it: everything can be “fixed” quickly with the wisdom of the “people” and the will of the ruler.
Transparency. – If former president Enrique Peña Nieto turned his management into a soap opera, AMLO transformed him into a reality show. The president responds, defends himself, gets angry, mocks, laughs, insults, scolds, accuses, absolves, gives instructions, offers nutrition advice, and makes decisions in front of the cameras and microphones for at least two hours a day. Hence, it seems that he hides nothing. It doesn’t matter that what he says is not the truth. Nor does it matter that his decisions are wrong, that his accusations are unfounded, that his advice is not useful, or that his instructions to the cabinet are not followed. It is enough for people to know that AMLO is there, daily, “governing life,” which to his followers seems an unprecedented act of “transparency.”
Authenticity. – The relationship of the president with his followers is not the utilitarian. “I voted for you, and in return, I want results.” Still, a sentimental bond of union to fight against the elites, to whom AMLO shows his contempt by violating all their political rules, of language, veracity, technical rigor, etiquette, among other things.
“I accept you as you are, and you accept me as I am, and I defend you from them because you defend me from them.” That is the president’s pact with his people, a relationship of loyalty that cannot be broken with statistical evidence or logical arguments.
As Catherine Fieschi explains, thanks to this emotional bond, the populist leader is authorized to “tell outrageous lies” and followers can “pretend to believe them. When part of society knows that it is being lied to, but does not care, because someone is finally putting the “enemies of the people” in their place, we enter the dangerous terrain of the tyranny of the majority: the powerful are not held accountable because they tell the “people” what they want to hear, and in return, that fraction of society gives them permission for everything.
In sum, the conferences should not be evaluated as a failed institutional communication act. Still, as a successful political ritual where liturgy is religiously fulfilled, the same phrases are repeated, the same stories are told, and the leader and the followers commune in the hatred of the adversaries of the self-named “Fourth Transformation.” All with the full guarantee of authenticity, because as AMLO has said: “Don’t think that I come here already with analyzed ideas, no. I come here to speak to you sincerely, to tell you what I feel, what I know. What is my experience”.
What to do? The media should give more emphasis to the truth than to the president’s fallacious sayings. We analysts could spend less time being shocked by what he says and more time explaining to the public the cost of renouncing reality. The private sector would have to update its stale communication strategies to balance its role in society. And the opposition would have to learn something from the president’s rhetoric: his undeniable ability to speak to people.
Opinion by Luis Antonio Espino – For The Washington Post
Luis Antonio Espino is a communications consultant in Mexico.
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