In habitual language use, symbolic politics means a publicly displayed deception or surrogate action that is used to detract from actual political reality. In this sense symbolic politics is considered to be a surrogate for politics. Symbolic politics differs from substantial policy. As a policy of signs (terms and slogans, badges, banners and pictures, gestures, ritual acts, and political staging), symbolic politics evolves in a semantic field. Substantial policy, by contrast, consists of a revisable succession of political decisions (e.g., legislation, contracts, taxes, etc.). Symbolic politics and substantial policy can be related to each other. On the one hand, symbolic politics can have an impact on substantial policy. On the other hand, substantial policy can be communicated, implemented, or averted by symbolic politics.
The negative connotation of symbolic politics, which is meanwhile consolidated in public opinion, does not correspond to the more sophisticated view of symbolic politics in cultural studies and social sciences, for symbolic politics in a broader sense also means the strategic use of signs to meet society’s requirements of political orientation. Attention may be attracted; willingness for political action, loyalty, or protest may be shown by symbolic politics. In the process, the symbolic worth of signs is converted into political power.
Symbolic politics is part of political communications and, for this reason, an element of a sense-making process. The use of symbols in politics is the expression of a fight for a certain political view of life. Thus, questions of domination or subordination are concerned, tending to unilaterally implement or achieve by mutual agreement what should be generally binding. Symbolic politics as a strategic use of symbolic instruments in politics does not simply aim at achieving interaction. It is neither decorative attachment nor ideological ballast, in contrast to “real” politics, but rather an integral part of political communications and thereby of policy in general.
An important impetus to international debate about symbolic politics was given by Murray Edelman in his works The symbolic uses of politics (1964) and Politics as symbolic action: Mass arousal and quiescence (1971). He understands political actions as playing certain roles, which find their expression in dramatic performances, rituals, and symbols. In his analysis he connects subjective and intersubjective forms of interpretive patterns (micro-phenomena) with the production of binding political decisions (macro-phenomena). Referring to Walter Lippmann´s classical study of public opinion (1922), Edelman’s conclusions rest on the premise that politics are too complex to be accessible to the general public. Instead, a surrogate world of political spectacles as a set of symbols and signifiers is constructed. Yet symbolic politics could refer to objective reality (“referential symbols”). But then there are “condensation symbols” that deceive about reality. Permanently installed democratic rituals encourage the belief in political participation and rationally founded acts of state, even though they are instruments of political “quiescence.” Political elites use language and symbols as instruments of manipulation shaping citizens’ realities, how they think and feel about politics.
There has been little success within the critical debate initiated by Edelman in correlating the assumed real politics and their legitimation by symbolic politics. Furthermore, symbolic politics has to deal with collective actors and institutions that are symbolic regimes themselves, being central elements in forming, stabilizing, and transforming social relationships. Symbolic politics is successful if it refreshes a specific repertoire of interpretation that can be affiliated to the culture of political interpretation or “symbolic space” (Bourdieu 1991). So symbolic politics in the sense of pseudo-politics is just a special case of a basal aspect of political acting, which always has instrumental and expressive parts.
Four fundamental functions of symbolic politics can be defined (see Sarcinelli 1987). (1) Symbolic politics has a signal function, attracts attention, breaches routines for providing or placing information, organizes the perception of politics, and thus contributes to the reliability of behavior. (2) By decreasing complexity it provides a regulator to cope with the mass of information. (3) It not only aims to denominate political circumstances but is also part of the political fight for the disposal of denomination. (4) By perceiving symbols in a mode of suggestive immediacy, it not only addresses rationality but activates emotions.
Symbolic politics is policy and as such neither principally good nor principally bad. It is an essential component of political communication and not just the invention of a media society. Yet modern mass media, through their omnipresence and visual presentation formats, provide means of influence and “symbolic power” (Bourdieu 1991) that have never before been available in history. But it would be a misunderstanding if symbolic politics were regarded in a dualistic frame as being a phenomenon of political acting on stage while “real” politics are seen as taking place backstage. Politics, including symbolic politics, is played on many different stages at the same time. In this action politicians can only succeed if they know how to play different roles and are able to use symbolic politics.
- Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge: Polity.
- Edelman, M. J. (1964). The symbolic uses of politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Edelman, M. J. (1971). Politics as symbolic action: Mass arousal and quiescence. Chicago: Markham.
- Edelman, M. J. (1988). Constructing the political spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Sarcinelli, U. (1987). Symbolische Politik [Symbolic politics]. Opladen: Westdeutscher.