The rise and fall of rally culture

I have been to several campaign events in this year’s election, and I’m afraid outdoor politics aren’t what they used to be here in Taiwan. I arrived in Taiwan for the first time in 1989, but I was oblivious to the electoral campaign going on. I was here during the spring of 1991, when students were demanding more democratic freedoms from the Hau government. I was mildly aware that something was going on, but I didn’t go and observe any of it. I started getting interested in politics during the 1992 legislative campaign, but I didn’t really start going out and watching closely until the 1993 county magistrate elections. In other words, I don’t have any personal memories of the 1980s when outdoor rallies had an element of danger, much less the 1960s or 1970s when the short campaign periods were just about the only time that the population could publicly criticize the government and blow off steam. When I started going to rallies, they were already perfectly safe. I have never worried about anything more serious than being stuck in the traffic jam of a large crowd. And since public safety in Taiwan is so excellent, I’ve never even had to worry about being pickpocketed.

In the early 1990s, rallies were still an important source of news about opposition platforms. The newspapers didn’t cover individual campaigns very closely, and cable TV news was just starting to blossom. If you wanted to know what a candidate stood for in any detail, you had to go and listen. Events were much smaller back then. A candidate might have nothing more than a few loudspeakers on the back of a sound truck, and the stage might be the bed of the sound truck. Usually they would set up the stage near some public place where there were already people, such as near a market, in a temple plaza, or in a clearing in a public park. At 7:00pm, they started speaking. I went to many events where it was me, the speaker, and one or two other people. It didn’t matter. If no one was listening, they started speaking anyway. After all, no one would stop by to listen if you weren’t saying anything. There were no hosts to introduce speakers. Typically, the first speaker introduced himself and then spoke for 30 minutes or so. When he finished, he would introduce the next speaker. You might only have four to eight speakers in an evening. If there was a decent crowd, they’d keep speaking. Back in those days, the opposition was used to ignoring the laws, so they thought nothing of violating the 10:00pm official curfew on campaign events. In fact, the night before the 1995 legislative election, Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian held an all-night vigil in support of his favorite candidate, Chang Chin-cheng. That was extreme, but events commonly dragged on until 11:00 or even midnight. These events were usually held by a single local candidate. The provincial assembly candidate might be the big attraction of the night. DPP events usually had speakers from other areas come, so you might see Frank Hsieh or Huang Huang-hsiung as well as the local candidate. They weren’t always famous or charismatic; you also saw some people who couldn’t speak publicly to save their lives. A good event might have several hundred people in the audience. Sometimes there were stools for people to sit on, but often it was just standing and milling around. The audiences were overwhelmingly male and a bit rough. After an event, the ground was always strewn with cigarette butts, betel nut residue, and other garbage. There were certainly none of the slick production values of today’s rallies. They might play a song when someone was introduced, but that was about it. I remember the first time hearing someone with an applause track and thinking what a terrible idea that was. With an audience of a few dozen, a sudden applause track sounds jarring and just emphasizes the absence of actual applause. The flip side was that you could actually tell when the speaker was connecting with an audience. When a speaker asked “right?” and the audience responded “right!” you could hear them. You could look at individual faces and see if they were really paying attention to what the speaker was talking about. Speakers could speak with the crowd, not merely at the crowd.

That is all a description of DPP rallies. The KMT didn’t really do rallies back then. When they tried to hold rallies, they were very different. KMT rallies were mostly style and very little substance. They usually had some star from TV variety shows as host, and most of the show was typical variety show fare. You might have an hour and a half of singing and dancing, but only twenty minutes of political speeches. The main reason they didn’t talk much about politics is that KMT local candidates weren’t responsible for politics back then. The party platform was the responsibility of the elites in the central government, not of the much less powerful elected officials. Representatives’ main responsibility was to ensure a steady flow of development funds to their constituencies. KMT crowds were almost always mobilized, and they always handed out lunch boxes to attendees. The difference between a mobilized and unmobilized crowd is not so stark these days, but back then they were completely different. Unmobilized crowds came individually, wanted to hear about politics, and would stay late into the evening. Mobilized crowds dutifully came, ate their lunch boxes, sat unattentively through a few acts, and often left before the event was over. It was obvious that the KMT electoral model simply wasn’t based on outdoor politics. They used factions, personal networks, and other organizational muscle to produce votes. In the short run, that was the superior vote garnering model.

The New Party burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, and they had their own outdoor culture. The New Party had very few material resources at their disposal, so they had to depend on ideas to sell themselves. Fortunately, they had no shortage of ideas or articulate people to voice their positions. Moreover, they targeted a population with a strong sense of empowerment. Unlike DPP crowds, which were sometimes a bit hesitant to get involved, New Party crowds were almost as vocal as the people on the stage. The brand new Da-an Forest Park became the New Party’s unofficial home stage, and every event there was crammed with enthusiastic and passionate people. It’s hard to express how much fun these rallies were, since everyone was so into it. (From my point of view, it was also more accessible because they spoke Mandarin, rather than the Taiwanese standard at DPP rallies.) The crowds at New Party rallies were a very different mixture than those at DPP or KMT rallies. There were lots of old military veterans, of course. But there were also a lot of middle class younger people, including many women. It wasn’t unusual at all to see lots of families mixed into the crowds. It made for a festive atmosphere.

There was, however, a side that always made me a little uncomfortable. The New Party people were quite proud that they were of a better social class than DPP supporters. They would talk about how the DPP left a mess after their events but New Party supporters always picked up their garbage. Another example I heard more than once was that there were never traffic jams after DPP events but there were always terrible traffic jams after New Party events because DPP supporters rode scooters while New Party supporters drove cars. Likewise, New Party rallies always ended by 10:00pm even if they still had more planned. The New Party, as they told us, was a law-abiding party, not like some other parties they could (and often did) name. Again and again, I heard them talk about how they were more refined 比較有水準 in a self-congratulatory or even derogatory tone.

There was also another thing that started to destroy rally culture that I credit to the New Party: the air horn. Some idiot introduced air horns to New Party rallies, and soon the back rows were completely filled with people inflicting hearing damage on everyone else. Eventually air horns slipped into DPP and KMT rallies, but the New Party had a monopoly on those infernal things for several months.

1997 marked a shift in rally culture on the DPP side. This was the year that would end up as a DPP landslide in the mayoral and magistrate elections. It was also the year of the A-Bian Whirlwind 阿扁璇風. Chen Shui-bian had been elected Taipei mayor in 1994, but this was the year that he emerged as a superstar endorser. Any time he showed up at a rally, it was a major event. The organizers would announce his arrival at the site with a volley of fireworks, and whatever was going on onstage at the time would grind to a halt as everyone strained to get a glimpse of CSB. This was the genesis of the modern heroic entrance, in which the candidate enters triumphantly down the center aisle. Back in the late 1990s, it wasn’t quite so formalized. Also, they have ditched the fireworks for some reason. Maybe they are too dangerous and uncivilized for today’s world.

It was in the late 1990s that the rallies also started getting bigger and more professional. The DPP started busing in supporters, though most attendees were still self-mobilized. However, there was enough demand to see star speakers like CSB that it made sense for local DPP politicians to start bringing in supporters in bulk. The DPP also needed bigger audiences because they were starting to simulcast the events live on cable TV, and they wanted it to look good for the TV audience at home.

It was about this time that the soundtrack was added, and this really changed the feel of rallies. At first, it was just adding a few strains of Ode to Joy or some other famous piece at emotionally charged moments. However, they have since put a soundtrack to the entire event. Nowadays, they use nondescript music with lots of long notes that can slowly build toward a climax. The person mixing the sound will adjust the pace of the build based on what the speaker is saying so that the music should climax just as the speaker is reaching a high point. The high point itself is identified with symbol crashes and the like. This is a signal for the audience to wave their flags and respond or cheer. Then it all starts over again with a new set of muted chords. One innovation that I noticed this year is the addition of scary music at DPP rallies. Whenever a speaker starts talking about President Ma’s or the KMT candidate’s lousy record in office, the music will switch to low, ominous sounding chords (usually cellos), giving a feeling that the KMT should be associated with disaster. When the speaker says how the DPP will be better, the music suddenly switches to brighter and happier chords. To me, all this works very effectively for the first half hour. However, after a while it becomes exhausting. Moreover, with all the music and sound effects, the audience can’t really get involved as a group. Since you can’t hear how everyone else is reacting, there is really no need to do more than wave your flag (which is a visual act). This keeps people from really getting swept up in the emotion of the rally. A couple days ago, I was at a rally where the speaker told the sound guy to turn the music off. (He had to ask twice. Apparently the sound guy didn’t understand what the speaker meant the first time.) Suddenly it was just the speaker and the audience, with no safety net. This allowed the audience to interact in a much more intimate way, and it ended up being one of the most successful speeches of the event, in my judgment. Sometimes less is more, and I wish they would learn to use the music more sparingly.

From my perspective, there was a specific high point in Taiwan’s rally culture. On election eve in the 2000 presidential race, a huge crowd poured into Zhongshan soccer stadium in Taipei. The organizers had boasted they would mobilize a million people in the last three rallies. (I think it was supposed to be 200,000 in Taichung on Saturday, 300,000 in Kaohsiung on Sunday, and 500,000 in Taipei on election eve.) Of course, that was a wild exaggeration, but I can attest that there was indeed a huge crowd in Taipei. The wiki page for the soccer stadium says it holds 40,000 people for concerts. I suspect there were quite a few more jammed into the stadium, since the seating behind the stage was completely full, and the crowd standing on the playing field (where I was) was jammed in tightly. Moreover, they had lots of huge screens set up outside the event, and there were probably as many people outside the stadium as inside it. The atmosphere was electric, since the DPP was on the verge of winning the presidency for the first time. To many people, it seemed like an impossible dream that was somehow going to become a reality. The indelible memory I have of that night is of the power of the Frozen Garlic cheer. The dongsuan 凍蒜 was so loud, and it seemed to punch you in the chest each time. I got the feeling that people were starting the cheer just to play around and feel the emotion as it reverberated off the bones of the old stadium. It felt to me as if they were releasing all the bundled-up emotion of the decades-long struggle for democracy in one triumphant burst. As a devotee of Taiwanese election rallies, election eve 2000 was one of the high points of my life.

 

Rallies in recent years have fallen far short of that standard. Voters have been through a lot in the past 16 years and are inevitably much more cynical. These days, the real passion in outdoor politics is found in street protests, not in election rallies. Crowds at modern election rallies tend to be much more heavily mobilized, much less enthusiastic, and much more geriatric, and the rallies are much more professionally produced and more ritualized than in the past. Still, every now and then, you see a glimpse of passion shine through. The events in the old days had lots of boring speakers and dead moments, too.

This year, the crowds have seemed particularly flat. I think this has something to do with how far ahead Tsai is in all the polls. There isn’t the sense of tension that a close race produces. The levels of emotion have started to pick up a little as we near election day, so maybe I’m judging things too early. After all, I remember most elections by the election eve rallies more than by the rallies a month before election day.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that rallies are becoming less fun. In the old days, rallies sent crucial political signals. Without reliable polls, no one knew whether a candidate was resonating with the public. Rallies were one of the few ways in which a candidate could credibly demonstrate strength. If you had huge and passionate crowds at your rallies, people took you seriously.

It didn’t matter much that rallies have always been terrible predictors of election outcomes. 10,000 frothing supporters at a rally looks imposing, but it might only mean 10,000 frothing voters. Those votes can be easily counterbalanced by 10,000 barely interested voters from the other side. The KMT used to routinely surprise election observers – especially foreigners – by winning easily even though the Tangwai or DPP had held fantastic rallies. Nowadays, we have very good polling data, so we don’t have to infer what people think from unreliable sources such as rallies. When a rally indicates one thing but the polls say another, you should trust the polls every time.

Rallies might not have correlated well with outcomes, but they have always been a pretty good indication of how much passion the core supporters are feeling at the moment. Numbers matter more, but intensity isn’t unimportant.

However, what has really killed the political rally is the freer media environment. Nowadays, there are a half dozen political talk shows on TV every night. If you don’t want to watch the talk shows, you can go to a variety of online sources. You don’t have to go to a rally to hear what a party stands for. Moreover, you can even watch rallies on TV or on Youtube. Rallies are like baseball games: you can watch them more comfortably and even more carefully at home, if what you care about is the action on the stage. You go to a live baseball game to soak up the atmosphere and to see all the little details away from the cameras. Likewise, you go to a rally to feel the atmosphere, to see Tsai Ing-wen up close and in person, or to go as a social outing with a group of your friends or neighbors. While this makes rallies less important and passionate, I certainly don’t want to the old restricted media environment. This way is much better.

 

For me, an election rally is the closest thing to a physical celebration of democracy. It is the space in which people publicly, peacefully, and often joyfully express support for one side or another. I particularly relish the happiness of electoral politics. Unlike street protests, which are almost always driven by anger and frustration, the atmosphere at election rallies is often optimistic and hopeful. If you are one of the many people who will attend a rally in person or watch one on Youtube in the next week, I hope you will take a moment to revel in the joyous atmosphere of democracy.

 

 

8 Responses to “The rise and fall of rally culture”

  1. les Says:

    I had friends who stumbled onto DPP rallies in ’88 / ’89, when the party was still operating illegally. Having been photographed at the event they were then dragged from from their homes, taken straight to the airport to be deported and blacklisted. So, it’s probably for the best you didn’t start your career as a ‘meddling foreigner’ at that time😉

  2. Marcus Says:

    I’m glad you pointed out that Election eve rally in 2000. I was there and I had been disgusted with politics in the US in the 1990s, but this made me get back into them. I could feel democracy taking hold at that rally, as everyone wanted to win so badly, but the race was still a huge toss up with each candidate having about 30 percent for the final pool allowed.

    One of the things I remember is how they passed out sparklers right before CSB came out to the people in the front and everyone lit them and the smell was so terrible from all the sulfur when they light. people were choking, but still loved it when he came out finally. (If i remember correctly, he was supposed to be there at 930 and didn’t get on stage till 12 or so).

    It was also a highlight of my life. cheers

    • Eric Moon Says:

      I was there too in 2000. It helped me better understand why many Taiwanese scholars I met during my previous academic life said they felt a bit disappointed by US electoral politics. They had always heard that US presidential elections were the “Super Bowl” of elections. But after observing them directly they failed to see what the big deal was – no chants, no fireworks, no passion. That night on Zhongshan N. Road was inspiring!

      • frozengarlic Says:

        I think that’s one of the big reasons I love outdoor politics so much. American politics are almost exclusively on TV. Sure, there are some rallies in Iowa with a candidate talking to a few hundred people at the state fair sitting on bales of hay, but those events are tiny and not part of the average person’s experience. I always wonder what it was like in the USA in the 1840s when parties held big candlelight parades before elections.

  3. buckhead Says:

    I was there too! I totally agree that 2000 eve is the high point in rally history. The atmosphere is electric and the crowd’s emotion high was beyond the charts. I guess one of the important reasons is that everybody there knew that they were witnessing some historical moment — and if fact they did.

    I was at the bleacher seats on southwest corner with my girlfriend. It’s pretty high above so high I didn’t even get a chance to touch the huge rubber bouncing balls. I recall each ball is representing something — of course I forgot now. I guess the only letdown that night is rumor had it 李遠哲 will show up and stump for CSB — and he didn’t instead he sent a video clip.

    Darn, now thinking about it. That’s the first time and last time I ever vote for any elections in Taiwan. I belong to the 20%-30% “didn’t vote” til now. Too bad they still don’t have remote voting mechanism.

  4. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    What a great article. Thank you for sharing all this with us!

  5. Zla'od Says:

    On the music issue, I remember noticing–in the televised KMT rally from four years ago–that they used background music from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I wondered vaguely about the rights issue, and whether they really wanted to be associated with piracy.

  6. Daiwanlang Says:

    Great point about the music drowning out audience response. Watching the rallies on YouTube and first thing wife and daughter point out was lack of audience response aside from some flag waving.

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