In general usage, political discourse comprises all forms of communication in and by political institutions or actors and all communication with reference to political matters. Thus, political public relations, both internal and external, news, commentary, film, talk shows, citizens’ everyday talk about politics etc. are all sites of political discourse. Different sites follow different rules of selection and construction of political reality, including, for example, news management techniques, news values, frames of interpretation, and heuristics of political judgment. General usage also acknowledges the fact that political discourse is often thematically structured, as in reference to “globalization discourse,” “abortion discourse,” and so on.
In addition to such general usage, there are two prominent, and opposing, strands of theorizing that feature more specific concepts of political discourse: the normative discourse theory of democracy and public communication associated with, among others, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a broad field of theoretical approaches originating in French philosophy and sociology that center around social and political functions of discursive practices.
In the first, normative, tradition, political discourse is characterized by the attempt to convince others through rational exchange of arguments about political matters. In the background of this understanding is the model of an ideal speech situation in which interlocutors cannot but make the following four counterfactual presuppositions about each other: (1) that their utterances are comprehensible, (2) that their claims about elements of objective reality are true, (3) that their utterances reflect their real intentions (truthfulness, sincerity), and (4) that their actions and norms are morally defensible (rightness) (Habermas 1984, 23). While most instances of (political) communication deviate from this ideal in one way or the other, such deviations can be “repaired” in discourse by problematizing and justifying the respective validity claims of comprehensibility, truth, and rightness. Only truthfulness cannot be argued but only demonstrated through corresponding action.
Political discourse in this normative understanding thus entails that political actors should explicitly justify their validity claims so that they can be debated by others in the public sphere – a process called public deliberation or public discourse (see Peters 2008). In his later writings, Habermas (1998) argues that civil society actors should put power-holders in the center of the political system “under siege” with their communication and that they can acquire communicative power to the degree that their opinions influence legislative deliberation and law-making. In this view, political legitimacy is procured not only by electing representatives (as is posited in most theories of democracy) but also by the communicative power generated bottom-up in political discourse. In empirical political communication research, this normative model has sometimes been used to evaluate the discursive quality of political media content, parliamentary debate, and citizen deliberation but a comprehensive empirical investigation of the interlocking stages and elements of political discourse from this perspective is lacking.
The second tradition of theorizing political discourse has a completely different starting point and draws from a number of different disciplines, including political science, sociology, linguistics, and literary and cultural studies (for an overview, see Apter 2001). Here discourse is understood as a way of organizing human experience in both texts and social practices following the insight that all human activity is built on a constant process of interpreting and giving meaning to the world. Usually, a relativist epistemology is advocated in this tradition, lacking a systematic distinction between scientific and other (e.g., professional, popular, sub-cultural) forms of discourse and not privileging the former over the latter. The boundaries of discourse as opposed to nondiscursive elements of the social world are often somewhat vague, and the idea of a causal relationship between discursive and nondiscursive elements is usually abandoned or ignored. Discourse analysis in this tradition is often concerned with exposing mechanisms or functions of domination in discourse and, conversely, the links between particular discourses and the ability of social and political actors to claim and realize agency.
Thus, political discourse has been studied from critical and feminist perspectives through in-depth interpretations of media texts. But everything can become the object of political discourse analysis in this sense: political rituals and public speeches, but also dress, architecture, anthems, flags, and other insignia of power and authority. One example relevant to political communication is the analysis of media events, deliberately staged and globally televised celebrations, contests, or “conquests” (Dayan & Katz 1994). Examples of the latter type are political events that mark transgressions such as Egyptian president Sadat’s first visit to Israel or Pope John Paul II’s first visit to communist Poland. Conquests, due to their strong propensity to command emotional participation and their particular performative qualities, can mark the coming of a new era and contribute to constructing the reality of that era. It is this emphasis on the reality-constituting capacity of discursive texts and practices that unites the divergent field of political discourse analysis in the second tradition.
- Apter, D. E. (2001). Political discourse. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 11644–11649.
- Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1994). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Habermas, J. (1998). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Peters, B. (2008). Public deliberation and public culture: The writings of Bernhard Peters, 1993–2005 (ed. H. Wessler). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.