Public Politics: The coming of age of the media politician in a transnational communicative space, 1880s-1910s
Around the turn of the twentieth century, accelerated social, political and technological changes interconnected with the emergence of the mass press in Western societies. What impact did this first form of mass media have on the role of the politician within this age of acceleration? So far, historical research has generally remained limited to the study of (specific) politicians conducting concrete politics in national or bilateral contexts. Media scholarship offers the concept of ‘mediatization’ – and its subsidiaries ‘personalization’ and ‘celebritization’ – of politics, but assumes that these processes are linear and contemporary. Moreover, both disciplines implicitly treat politics as a static field. By contrast, this dissertation historicizes and problematizes these concepts; analyzes the development of a new type of politician within a transnational context; and shows the formation of a wider field of politics. Guided by the notion of a ‘transformation of visibility’ (Thompson 1995), the dissertation argues that the emerging mass press led to a professionalization and new function of the ‘media politician’ in a broad communicative field of ‘public politics’. Politicians had a history of interacting with media, but now this interaction became a core part of their politics. Within this interaction, journalists and politicians (re)shaped expectations for a politician to engage with the reading public, to manage his relations with the press, and to seek publicity through political publications, speeches, and events. As this politician’s mediagenic features and personality matched the commercial logic of the competitive mass press, he became a ‘celebrity brand’. In addition, this politician served as a ‘communicative anchor’ that moored and stabilized overlapping identities, and enabled newspapers to employ him as a protagonist to narrate the complexity of the accelerating social and political changes to readers. However, to compete in an ‘attention economy’, the media politician constantly needed to balance his visibility. Overall, these press-political developments reconfigured the field of politics into one in which publicness was the default expectation. This public politics brought politicians closer to the people and facilitated a mediated connection of ‘trust’ between them, which constituted both a democratizing and de-democratizing dynamic. This argument is made by analyzing four political figures that were particularly visible in the press, but represented broader press-political patterns: British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, Cape Colony Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, and German Emperor Wilhelm II. On a secondary level, these figures are compared to the Belgian King Leopold II and American President Theodore Roosevelt, as well as examples from other countries. The analysis is based on a qualitative and quantitative study of historical newspapers, as well as (auto)biographies and correspondences of politicians and members of the press.