What we have learned about communication at rallies – and what we need to know

Photos used with permission from Chadema.
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It’s hard to express just how important rallies are for political communication in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Rallies reach both in-person and mediated mass audiences in campaigns which are described, variously, as rally-intensive, rally-centric and rally-central. In such campaigns, rallies are a principal means through which elections are fought and principal sites at which everyday politics plays out. Yet there is so much we do not know about them.

That is why we have co-edited a just-published special issue of the Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics dedicated to the subject of rally communications in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our inspiration from a prior generation of studies of communication at mass events in authoritarian regimes. We and all of the contributing authors have endeavoured in different ways to shed new light on the communications which are produced, performed and contested at rallies. This is what we found.

Who communicates to whom, and how?

First, rally communications need to be complicated. As Sam Wilkins and Richard Vokes argue, rallies in Uganda are not only events at which politicians address audiences, but they are sites of multiple axes of communication. As Dan Paget illustrates, in Tanzania, they are sites at which audiences communicate with politicians. In Hannah Waddilove’s analysis, in Kenya, they are events at which politicians communicate with one another in the formation of local-national alliances.

Rally communication is not just confined to the site of the rally. As Gabrielle Lynch shows in Kenya, rallies are used to communicate across multiple media and platforms. They are mediated, as George Bob-Milliar and Jeffrey Paller show in Ghana, alongside a series of other media events.

Altogether, we argue that rallies should be seen as events in which many cross-cutting attempts to communicate by various actors collide and combine. All of those present at the rally, in a sense, are co-producers and sometimes counter-producers of the messages communicated at rallies. Rallies certainly are, to paraphrase Lisa Gilman, complex communicative events.

Constructing candidates, collectivities and conflicts

Past research has analysed the messages communicated at and through rallies as carriers of clientelist or programmatic appeals. We argue that these are not the only features of those messages worth analysing. Instead, messages crafted and communicated at rallies simultaneously carry an abundance of other meanings. The articles in this special issue illustrate the wealth of meanings made at them, and the range of practices through which they are made. This sheer diversity of meanings is lost in the categorisation of messages as clientelist or programmatic. Like a previous generation of research, we advocate that analysts approach this variety of meanings with open eyes and minds.

Nevertheless, we argue that there are underlying patterns to the meanings made at rallies. Inspired by media genre theory, we think of the rally as a genre. The rally exists as a living construct; there are context-specific ideas about what rallies are and what happens at them. It’s a genre with many subgenres, as McDonald Lewanika shows in Zimbabwe, and which is being constantly improvised upon, as Aikande Kwayu illustrates in Tanzania. Co-producers draw on it as a template as they design and deliver rallies. Audiences draw on it to make sense of what goes on at the rally.

We argue that encoded in that genre is the production of three constructs: candidates, collectivities and conflicts. Each of these three C’s may be constructed in any number of ways at rallies, but we argue that in any event produced in the rally genre, they are each constructed in some way.

Candidates are drawn into the foreground as the principal speakers at campaign rallies. In events produced in the rally genre, they occupy the centre of attention as they arrive, speak, and depart. On-stage, they offer, what Paula Munoz – channelling Ervin Goffman – calls presentations of self. These presentations are complemented, and sometimes contradicted, by the ways in which they are characterised by other co- and counter-producers at rallies.

All sorts of people congregate at rallies, where they do all sorts of things. However, at events produced in the rally genre, they are folded into one body: the crowd. This assemblage of bodies forms an ideal canvas onto which multiple possible collective identities can be projected. Rally crowds are often presented as localities. However, they are equally presented as embodiments of peoples, nations, ethnicities, generations, and any number of other collectivities.

Finally, conflicts are constructed at rallies. Rallies serve as fruitful forums in which to construct an ‘us’ which draws candidates and crowds together and places them in opposition to a ‘them.’

We argue that imaginaries of representation are fixed through these constructions of those three C’s. While candidates, collectivities and conflicts are constructed in numerous ways at rallies, as Paget argues, they are often characterised in ways which make candidates representatives of those crowds and the collectivities they embody, representatives in the context of wider conflicts with out-groups.

Altogether, while the meanings made at and through rallies are legion, there are persist patterns in what those meanings are. The examples which the articles in this special issue illustrate the regularity with which these three-Cs are constructed, and the numerous ways in which they are so.

The still underexplored complexity of rallies

In one way or another, the contributions to this special issue all engage with the importance, complexity and creativity of rallies. Important in numerous ways, as a site and a means of political communication. Complex in event production, mediation, contestation and meaning-making.  Creative in the new ways in which numerous actors are forever developing to produce, mediate, contest and make meanings.

We think that the articles in this study contribute much, but they do not close this line of enquiry into communication at rallies. Instead, we hope that it will open it. In many ways these articles scratch the surface of a rich and long-neglected field of enquiry. They shed light on practices which innovations by creative rally producers may soon supersede. We look forward to learning about them in the future.

Dan Paget (danpaget.com) is a lecturer at the University of Sussex who works on political communication and the ideological contestation of democracy.

Nicole Beardsworth (@NixiiB) is a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand who works on political parties, elections and democracy in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Gabrielle Lynch (@GabrielleLynch6) is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick and works on elections, democratisation, social media, and judiciaries.

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