Saliency, ‘bullshit artism’ and political agenda setting



Photo of Mikal Hertig

Mikael Hertig, M of Sc. Pol

By Mikael Hertig
Master of Political Science

Both in Europe and America we have experienced a growth in manipulative behavior. It is often described of a ‘postfactual’ period indicating that truth too often is ignored (whatever truth means). Manipulation has always been embedded in politics.

The term ‘Saliency’  was introduced to me at an early stage. [Robert E Lane and David O. Sears, “Public Opinion”, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, N J, Inc., 1964 ] . As English is not my native language I often have to find a Dictionary or an Encyclopedia to understand the sense of the word and perhaps how to use it in my own vocab. According to them ‘salience’ has to do with both importance and attracting attention.  Lane & Sears wrote as far as I remember that if you want to make a personal political career you will have to say popular things.  As you will never find an objective answer to the question of relevance, ‘importance’ is very difficult to handle. It seems to me that ‘importance’ in politics tends to end in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The term ‘importance’ should then be understood as related to what people or a segment of people feel of importance. We are not in the world of science, rather in creative arts.

I will therefore reserve the term ‘saliency’ to ‘noticeability’, the power of attracting attention(1)

As a teenager living in a small city in Denmark  it was possible to me and some friends to have  messages broadcasted  through the official Danish Radio (Publicly driven).  We had a low supply of piece of information at that time. Now it seems to be quite opposite.

It is obvious that the competetion in saliency has exploded. Simply spoken: to break through in public media you will have to break through an editorial iron curtain. You can be as skilled and unbiased as you want. Any article of importance without connection to saliency will never succeed through break through. Looking as news as a sort of commodity is of relevance here.

This also leads to the question: Does it really matter whether your message is true? If you stick to the  simple truth this might be out of interest.  In politics, the aspect of truth relies very often on a mix of normative and descriptive statements. It may therefore be difficult to extract the descriptive aspects of a message. Thus: sharpening of the competition of saliency leads to the conclusion that it is not as important as it has been whether a politician’s statement is true or not.  As long as you are not directly busted it seems harmless.

Political reasoning and discussion was once intimately connected. It was seen as a quality if a politician was able to understand and answer question both under interviews and public debates with other politicians.  To act reasonable and reflecting was merely a quality. It might even been experienced  a quality to change position after having listened to other skilled people’s statements. It seems to me that there is not much room for such qualities in modern public political discussion.

Antagonism or hostility seems much better than just referring to science because you can challenge the ‘enemy’ to answer. Editors love that and tend to substitute saliency with the factual consequenses, that seems the ignored aspects of ‘importance’.


billede af Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Bullshit artism:

We have already recognized that political candidates compete in saying ‘popular things’.  Dependant on the actual political environment this might be thoroughly identified. Of course, the candidate should seem to be in some kind of errand. Nowadays the political direction should not be too precise. Let us call it ‘communicative’.

In comparison between the former nominee Bernard Sanders and the GOP Donald truth seems to be that Sanders spoke a clear message attracting ideal types describing a direction to go if elected the amount of prejudices in the Trump campaign at least to me seemed overwhelming.

Do the American muslims rape your children? Is this generalization true? I guess not. Is it proper or relevant to call Hilary Clinton   “a devil”?  The idea of building a wall at the Mexican border on Mexico’s behalf seems lingo.

In Denmark we have experienced that the bullshit amount has reached a new level: It has been proven that the general level of knowledge of the items according to migration, islam, terrorism and integration falls the more people follow the public media. Stay away from them and your world picture is more precise.

To me this seems a tipping point: Knowledge falls the more you read papers or follow to the TV news. When identifying indicators of a segment’s wished and worries common fear and worries seem to attract specific middle or lower class layers. Reducing complexity and sending the signal that the worries are understood (whatever they are) seems to do a  really good job.

Shortly: Please your segment.  Fertilize it’s prejudices and do not dare to fight them. Use bullshit for that purpose. Identify people in opposition. Attack them. Say they are ignorants because they do not listen to ‘the people’ and ‘the people’s worries’.

The US election and the establishment
It seems to me that the central approach has to do with how to oppose to the establishment.  Both Sanders and Trump had succes so far in showing disappointment to “establishment”. What is the establishment? Is it easy to incarnate this term? According to common knowledge a small elite og elites will always be at power. If a campaign succeeds at least a part of the actual ruling elite will be substituted by another part.
So the question seems to me to be: what should a new establishment do instead of who they should be. The populist way seems to be always to act is if you understand ‘people’ better than ‘the establishment’. As the ‘people’ does not exist any campaign talking on behalf of ‘the people’ or the ‘silent majority’ is indeed free. Just say so.

Into the degree that US polices after the election will be exercised through a new president it is bullshit to oppose ‘establishment’ as a principle. The candidate will have to substitute some parts of the ruling establishment with other people. After that, normal conditions will reappear. By definition, establishment will again be at power.

Agenda setting

It seems as if many American citizens do not recognize how deep the crisis inherited from the 2007-08 crash really was. The lesson to learn however seems to be that Obama could not fulfil the expectations from the typical middle class family. The losses were enormous, and many families are still poor.  Let us put it that way: some of the Wall Streets capitalists are much richer than before the crisis while the average family has lost without having regained so much.  Seen from a European point of view the American belief in one person seems exaggerated. No President nor Dirty Harry wiill ever be able to rule the world as a single person. She or he will be a very important  person. We have however seen too long periods of stallmate between  Congress and President for a long time. When do Americans reflect on the  formal necessity og modernizing the Constitution?

Agenda setting still is a necessity in politics. Looking at Obama’s eight years it seems obvious that some sort of parliamentarism would serve the United States better than the actually stalling idea of checks and balances.

This leads me to the conclusion that the winner seems to be the power of non-decision making. That means that the real important decisions are made under radar without any persons manifest consent.

Agendas are set under radar; saliency seems just a distraction. If so, how can the American political system change that? Who can set this agenda?








(1) If this is a really wrong way of using ‘saliency’ please let me know.

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