Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.
Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.
At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, '"We the People": The "Modern" Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period', Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.