Persuasion is an integral part of politics and a necessary component of the pursuit and exercise of power. Political persuasion is a process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behavior regarding a political issue through messages, in an atmosphere of free choice (Perloff 2003, 34). As the field of political communication has grown, so too has the number of studies exploring the processes and effects of political persuasive communication. Political persuasion involves the application of persuasion principles to a context in which most individuals possess the seemingly incompatible characteristics of harboring strong feelings about a host of issues, yet caring precious little about the context in which these issues are played out.
In order to understand political persuasion impact, one must appreciate the processes by which messages achieve their effects). Cognitive processing models such as the elaboration likelihood model (see Petty et al. 2003) emphasize that under low political motivation or ability, voters base decisions on heuristics and are susceptible to cues peripheral to the main message, such as candidate attractiveness, political party labels, endorsements, and even the degree to which political names are repeated or are smooth-sounding. Some researchers argue that in these low-involvement situations, individuals lack political attitudes altogether and therefore can be swayed by factors that are momentarily salient in the political environment, variables that may be of such a transient nature they are devoid of any substantive meaning (Bishop 2005).
By contrast, when individuals are motivated or able to consider political issues, they centrally process message arguments, recalling arguments they perceive to be personally important and thinking through issues, although such thinking is invariably biased by strongly held values or self-interest. In politics, where attitudes and prejudices are formed at an early age, much highly involved processing is biased processing. Consequently, the political persuasion that occurs through debates, advertising, news, and blogs frequently falls under the category of reinforcement, attitude strengthening, or converting attitudes into voting behavior. The vast array of political communications also can change attitudes, frequently subtly and indirectly, as when messages access deeply held values, prime standards for candidate evaluation, and influence the salience of political issues (West 2005).
Levels Of Influence
While researchers generally focus on specific types of political persuasion, we can understand this process more clearly by examining both the direction of influence and the various levels at which this persuasive influence occurs.
If a democratic system is to function efficiently, political persuasion occurs in both directions, bottom-up and top-down. The public must be able to persuade politicians to enact public policies that reflect the will of the people. This persuasion can be expressed by the will of the majority, such as by a mandate in a winning election, but it can also be expressed by the minority, such as in the influence of special interests and lobbyists. Alternatively, the direction of influence can go from political leaders to the public. Politicians must be able to persuade the public to support their agenda of foreign policy, domestic, and legislative initiatives. For example, the government uses various means of political persuasion to persuade the people to support foreign military action, or support new domestic initiatives such as sweeping health-care reform or the privatization of pension provision.
Ultimately, it is the media that are the critical links in this process – regardless of direction – as they transmit carefully crafted messages by government agencies (for example White House propaganda in the war on Iraq; Kellner 2004), convey the strength of public support of policies by reporting public opinion polls (Mutz & Soss 1997), and act as gatekeepers and framers of the daily flow of political news (Williams & Deli Carpini 2000).
Along with direction of influence, we must understand the practice of political persuasion across levels. At the interpersonal level there is ongoing political persuasion occurring within the halls of legislative bodies, where law-makers engage in endless armtwisting of their colleagues while seeking support and votes for legislation. The so-called “Johnson treatment” is a case in point. As a senator in the 1950s, the former US president Lyndon Johnson was particularly effective in gaining the support of his Democratic colleagues by exploiting tactics of persuasive interpersonal communication. In more recent years Johnson’s techniques have been refined through the use of non-stop opinion polls, made famous during the presidencies of Reagan and Clinton.
Political persuasion at the interpersonal level also occurs among individuals, dyads, and groups within the public. This is most apparent during political campaigns as supporters attempt to convert the undecided as well as rally the faithful. The persuasiveness of interpersonal political communication has become more apparent in recent elections as the use of the Internet, including emails and blogs, has been found to be an important means of rallying political support and fundraising (e.g., the Howard Dean 2004 and Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaigns). Internet campaigns by special interest groups have also been found to be effective in spurring letter-writing, phone calls, and emails to members of parliaments to persuade them to vote for particular legislation. In addition, at the intergroup level members of the public participate in political rallies, marches, and protests that can often be effective means of persuading politicians to pay greater attention to specific social causes or legislative issues.
Most research in the area of political persuasion occurs within the context of elections. At the societal level, political advertising has been found to influence the voting decisions and affect the political knowledge of voters in the US (Just et al. 1990). Although derided by critics, negative political ads have been shown to be effective (Perloff 1998). Tactics of persuasion during elections have been practiced and perfected by political consultants (Thurber & Nelson 2000). As inordinate amounts of money are becoming increasingly important in successful political campaigns, candidates and party leaders must persuade donors to make financial contributions. Lastly, throughout the campaign candidates make promises to voters as a means of winning their votes, although means of accountability for broken promises are much less clear.
Converging across levels, attempts at political persuasion by interest groups must continually battle for legitimization from the greater public at large, public officials, and the media. Even as some interest groups find great success in persuading both public and politicians of their message, many other “fringe” groups (e.g., proponents of a 9/11 coverup) may never find their message well received, despite their persuasive attempts.
Media Forms And Frames
Like other forms of political communication, politically persuasive messages are not always truthful and honest, and it is up to media watchdogs and the public to sort out fact from fiction. Politically persuasive messages also take different forms across various media. The goal of films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Political Persuasion Truth is to persuade individuals to support a particular set of political beliefs. In addition, both TV talk shows and talk radio have continued to become more pervasive in the US and other countries, and a myriad of talk-show hosts both entertain and try to persuade their audience that their opinions are right, while also inducing reinforcement effects. Thus, the mediated campaign environment represents the battleground in the fight for the “hearts and minds” of public and elites. Legitimation of message is a crucial aspect of persuasion, and the media are primary sources of political information, whether about candidates or about issues. But the media are not simple conduits for information. Journalistic routines influence what and how news is presented.
How information is framed also affects how it is processed, with what elements it is stored and related in the public’s mind, and ultimately how persuasive it may be. Framing provides the audience with a workable model to interpret complex and often confusing information. In this sense, framing is an extension of agenda setting. Agenda setting was seen as the outcome of journalists’ roles, activities, and values. Hence the media tell us what to think about, if not specifically what to think. Traditionally, this was viewed as a laissez-faire phenomenon, but more recently the setting of the media agenda (and through that the public’s agenda) has been seen as the result of an intention to create the media’s own effects (Lakoff 2004).
But framing is a multilevel phenomenon. Elites and special interest groups attempt to create – or manipulate, depending on your perspective – the public agenda by providing poll-tested linguistic constructions of highly charged political issues. Media, using their own norms and values, select and present information about these issues. The public itself interprets mediated information through its own preconceptions and attitudes.
Initially, framing may be more effective in low-involvement situations, providing simple explanations for events, in line with peripheral processing. Once the frame is set, it can be activated for processing other persuasive messages. Kosicki (2002) argued that framing is consistent with schematic information processing.
Framing operates at both a sociological and a psychological level. When the media present themes that explain basic episodic news (persons and events), there are inherent ideologies, values, and symbols that help to shape context. When individuals use these themes to assess cause and effect, heroes and villains, and right and wrong, the psychological processes are in full play (Iyengar & Simon 1993).
Ambiguity Of Political Persuasion
Ultimately, political persuasion can be best viewed along a continuum – one end anchored in the harmful effects of propaganda, the other in the positive effects of marches and demonstrations leading to civil rights legislation, with a great deal in between. Back in 1922 Walter Lippmann said that the media create a pseudo-reality (Lippmann 1922), but in the age of corporate news media, the “mediation of reality,” in which persuasive messages are delivered by the media, is frequently guided more by purposes such as gaining revenue or influence than by journalistic standards.
Political persuasion remains an ambiguous phenomenon, raising time-honored questions that date back to ancient Greek philosophy. Do political persuasive messages enhance or debase democracy? Do advertisements inform voters about candidates’ positions or mislead them by presenting vacuous statements and feel-good pictures? As campaigns move to the Internet, new questions are emerging, such as whether campaigns will enhance direct communication between leaders and citizens or increase the potential for deception in a milieu unchecked by nonpartisan news media. Theory and research suggest that technology will bring benefits, but also offer new gimmicks in an old game.
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