The study of rhetoric and politics examines the role of persuasion in the political process. The study of rhetoric most commonly begins with readings from ancient Greece and Aristotle’s handbook, On rhetoric. Classical scholars conceived of rhetoric as a practical art involving the performance of public oratory in the contexts of politics, law, and ceremonial occasions, separated from the philosophy of knowledge. As Isocrates’ words expressed during the classical period: “Speech is responsible for nearly all of invention. It legislated in matters of justice and injustice, in beauty and baselessness. . . . With speech we fight our contentious matters, and we investigate the unknown” (Antidosis 254–256, in Mirhady 2000). While twentieth-century rhetorical scholars continued to address the role of persuasion in the public sphere, its study has more recently expanded beyond public oratory to include other persuasive texts, including advertisements, autobiographies, cartoons, films, manifestoes, memorials, photographs, television and print news, and many other forms of discourse circulating in public spaces. Rhetoricians of today also recognize the epistemological contributions of rhetoric, which accentuate its role in creating knowledge and constituting perceptions of political reality.
Scholarship that intersects rhetoric and politics includes not only the study of electoral politics, but other forms of political persuasion involving institutions (e.g., governments, corporations) and individuals and/or groups working to disrupt such institutional power (e.g., activist leaders and social movements). Such scholarship often relies on humanistic methodologies yet also utilizes social scientific measurements. The study of rhetoric and politics often centers on three broader areas of examination: the consideration of history in the study of rhetoric and politics, an examination of how political messages make meaning, and an assessment of message impact.
The Role Of History And Political Rhetoric
The study of rhetoric is often attuned to the history of ideas and how public texts contribute to the evolutionary understanding of political and cultural conflicts and norms. A public text, thus, functions as a historical artifact, which reflects the political and cultural ideas of the moment in which it was created. For some, an understanding of the historical and political context represents a necessary component in the comprehension of textual meaning. Of course, even as rhetoricians turn to history to inform rhetorical practice, rhetoricians also are mindful of rhetoric’s role in creating historical narratives, which are likewise dependent on arguments and evidence.
Regardless of its rhetorical dimensions, history serves as a key component in the study of rhetoric and politics. Rhetorical analyses cognizant of history demonstrate how rhetoric helps enact, empower, and constrain human behavior over time, excavating the “rhetorical climate of an age” (Zarefsky 1998, 31). For some, understanding the relationship among history, rhetoric, and politics necessitates an examination of archival resources that inform the meanings of the public discourse, allowing for a more insightful and informed interrogation of text and context.
An appreciation of the generic features of political discourse represents one scholarly focus of those sensitive to the contributions of history to rhetoric and politics. Campbell and Jamieson (1990, 8) explain that a generic approach to political discourse “emphasizes continuity within change” and assumes that “symbolic institutional needs” are integral to understanding “the force of events in shaping the rhetoric of any historical period.”
Historically, the public speakers who attracted the attention of scholars of rhetoric and politics were white men in positions of political leadership. More recently, however, scholars have worked to expand the rhetorical canon by writing more leaders of marginalized groups into history. Zaeske (2003), for example, examines women’s petitions housed in the Library of Congress to exhibit the role of women’s signatures as expressions of their political participation during the US antislavery debates. Focusing on issues of race and politics during the historical era of Reconstruction, Wilson (2002, xvii) illuminates the “social meanings of race and civil rights as these concepts were negotiated by the period’s national politicians,” revealing the gradual erosion of equality. Such scholarship often requires the use of archival depositories to uncover seldom studied political texts and to gain a greater appreciation of the political context in which the texts were produced.
While political texts often feature an examination of the written or spoken word, an exploration of the visual turn in rhetoric is gaining widespread scholarly attention. Olson (2004, 16–17) argues that more traditional forms of discourse are insufficient for capturing the historical political climate as “those without political power and economic privilege often resorted to types of rhetorical appeals in various mundane objects . . . used for persuasion in public life.” Recognizing that such visual images are historically situated, such scholars presume that visual meanings are complex and variable yet have held significant rhetorical power throughout history.
While some of the historically minded rhetorical research is concerned with broader theoretical issues, much of the scholarship is classified as theory grounded in practice, where the particulars of the case inductively invoke general theoretical principles that transcend the case. As David Zarefsky (1998, 25) explains, isolated case studies “suggest models, norms, or exemplars . . . and they sometimes yield a ‘theory of the case.’” Other rhetorical scholars, however, question such grounded theorizing, expressing concern that the particulars of the historical and the individual inhibit a more theoretical examination of the political persuasion process. Such differing views reveal the pluralism at work in the scholarship of rhetoric and politics, which also attends to the ways that messages create meaning.
Political Messages And The Creation Of Meaning
Rhetorical scholars attending to political messages often rely on social scientific and critical-historical perspectives in their scholarship. Utilizing social scientific methods, Hart (2000), for example, demonstrates his concern for broader theoretical conclusions about political messages with his creation of a computer program, DICTION, which examines the “unconscious language choices people use when talking to one another” (Hart 2000, 4). Beginning with US political messages from the 1948 presidential election, Hart and his researchers downloaded over 20,000 public texts into DICTION in order to draw more general conclusions about political discourse through an analysis of variance (ANOVA) study. The data revealed, Hart contends, that political campaigns ideally reinvigorate the country, involving a “conversation” among candidates, the media, and the public. Citizens also typically look for a “middle ground” and dislike the negativity of campaigns. In the end, Hart offers an optimistic assessment of campaigning and its democratizing tendencies.
Other scholars of rhetoric and politics, however, opt to forgo social scientific methods and interrogate instead the nuances of meanings, utilizing, among others, rhetorical, political, and media theories as critical lenses by which to analyze public discourse. With such critical perspectives, objectivity is often shunned in favor of a rhetorical critic’s insights that offer new and provocative ways in which to understand the meanings expressed in discourse. Many rhetorical critics assume, as Medhurst (1996, 219) explains, that “the truly important questions in life seldom lend themselves to clear-cut answers that can be held with absolute certainty,” especially in a political world full of volatility, change, and conflict.
Questions of ideology and thus power are often foundational to rhetorical studies focused on political meaning. McGee (1980, 5), for example, argued that “ideology in practice is a political language, preserved in rhetorical documents, with a capacity to dictate decision and control public belief and behavior.” Such a perspective views rhetoric as a “theory of social and political power” that can help unite or divide communities (Lucaites & Condit 1990, 24).
Ideologically grounded studies often are foundational to the examination of media texts. Popular culture in particular is attracting increased attention by researchers interested in the political meanings created by fictionalized discourse. Dow (1996) explains that popular culture completes “some of the cultural work” previously produced by public oratory; television works “rhetorically to negotiate social issues: to define them, to represent them, and ultimately, to offer visions of their meanings and implications” (Dow 1996, xv). For postmodern scholars, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred, especially in a mediated world, which draws attention to the ideological struggles over issues of gender, race, and class more so than questions of truth.
The news media are also, of course, the target of many scholars’ critical interrogations. Framing theories are commonly used to examine the news. Press frames, Jamieson and Waldman (2003, xii–xiii) explain, “shape what citizens know, understand, and believe about the world” as conceptions of truth and falsehood “pass through news frames,” featuring particular journalistic interpretations. In the process, certain information is included while other details are excluded because of the “fixed borders” of press frames (Jamieson & Waldman 2003, xiii). More specifically, press frames group important words, phrases, and visual images to emphasize particular interpretations of political history, events, or people. While journalistic coverage can certainly provide alternative perspectives, often such frames inspire more stereotypical coverage, particularly of marginalized groups and individuals.
Even though attention to mediated texts is a popular focus for scholars of rhetoric and politics, other researchers, however, continue to examine the meanings created in public speeches, with some focused on the discourse of institutional leaders. The connection between the discourse of governmental officials and theories of nationalism is becoming increasingly popular. Such political discourse, Beasley (2004, 3–4) maintains, helps foster “feelings of shared national identity within a wildly diverse democracy.” Depictions of citizenship are commonly featured; political discourse often renders visible or invisible those groups that are privileged or marginalized in a political culture.
Other scholars, however, are more concerned with those who combat institutional forces to effect political change. Morris and Browne (2006, 1) contend that social protest scholars “understand that words are deeds, that language has force and effect in the world.” The social movement scholar generally eludes the focus on the single text and single leader in favor of a diversity of textual forms produced by multiple members of a movement. Such texts include the written and spoken words (e.g., speeches, songs, manifestoes, poems, autobiographies), the nonverbal symbols of a movement (e.g., gestures, emblems, signs), and different types of mediation used by leaders and members. The focus, though, is often centered on questions of meaning regarding the discursive action of social protest – meanings that invoke questions of effectiveness for scholars of rhetoric and politics.
An Assessment Of Rhetorical Impact
One of the more contentious issues involving political rhetoric over the past few decades evolves around questions of effect. Instigating a debate, political scientist Edwards (1996, 214) asserted: “we do not know nearly enough about the impact of rhetoric, and we should not assume its importance” without the presence of “systematic evidence” often omitted from rhetorical analyses (217). In response to Edwards’ charge, Medhurst (1996) explained that rhetoricians and social scientists often ask different research questions, with scholars of rhetoric concerned about matters of stylistic eloquence, source intent, rhetorical strategy and meaning, and argument, which often defy the measurement of hypothesis testing.
Regardless of the dispute, notions of effect are often categorized as more instrumental or constitutive by rhetorical scholars. An instrumental approach locates the scope of effect in the immediate context and assesses the text’s impact on the intended audience. A constitutive approach, however, suggests that “discursive action constitutes the concepts that shape a social world so as to enable and constrain subsequent thought and action” (Jasinski 1998, 80). Such discourse, though, is viewed as one component of a much larger mosaic of political discourse that collectively creates or erodes a sense of community. Instrumental notions of effect, thus, are viewed more causally; constitutive notions of impact, rather, are viewed as reflective of, and contributing to, the rhetorical culture in which the texts circulate in more abstract ways.
The role of public opinion polling is often viewed as a more instrumental assessment of effect, whose history is rooted in the nineteenth century. Such polling, though, has received considerable critical attention from scholars of rhetoric and politics. Hauser (1999, 5) is skeptical of the news media’s reporting of public opinion polling because it typically “creates the impression of ‘the public’ as an anonymous assemblage given to volatile mood swings likely to dissipate into apathy and from which we personally are disengaged.” The result, Hauser contends, is that individuals “seldom experience” such polling data as reflective of their own opinions, exacerbating feelings of alienation (Hauser 1999, 5).
The tendency of polling to reduce the individual to an aggregate leads other scholars to rely on focus groups to assess questions of impact. Some of the more robust focus group research in rhetoric and politics relates to the longitudinal research of DebateWatch, a program directed by Diana B. Carlin from the University of Kansas and sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Initiated in 1996, DebateWatch brings together citizens to watch the presidential debates and answer specific questions about those debates in small groups. Based on such research, Levasseur and Carlin (2001) note the importance of talking to “ordinary citizens” about politics, shifting attention toward what the American people have to say instead of attending to the words of the nation’s political leaders or the percentages of their responses. Such studies, though, occasionally provide less favorable impressions of the electorate than anticipated. Reporting on the 1996 DebateWatch data, for example, Levasseur and Carlin (2001, 408–409) report that the electorate was more focused on “egocentric arguments,” where “personal concerns” were assumed to represent “common affairs.”
Such attention to issues of civic engagement represents for many the foremost outcome of scholarship associated with the study of rhetoric and politics. Scholars often return to rhetoric’s roots when detailing notions of civic engagement, recognizing the contributions of Aristotle and Cicero, in particular, to notions of citizenship and rhetorical practice (Gronbeck 2004). In part, scholars write and teach about exemplars of civic engagement whose political involvement altered political practices in substantive ways. The scholarship in turn is designed to help promulgate civic engagement ends among citizens, particularly students in the earliest stages of civic consciousness, strengthening the relationship between democratic practice and rhetorical principles.
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