Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Audience Perceptions of Politeness and Advocacy Skills in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Audience Perceptions of Politeness and Advocacy Skills in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

Barber (1992) has argued that a candidate's image, what the public thinks about a candidate, is important to a candidate's success. Because debates are about differences and disagreements, how one responds to criticisms of leadership capacity reveals one's political image to viewers. Audiences observe candidates in the debates to reinforce prior commitments, gain information about the candidates, and, in some instances, determine which candidate to support in a campaign. Because debates engender confrontation and conflict over policy, character, and priorities, they place each candidate's political image at risk. While some research has treated arguments over policy or character as distinct (Benoit, 2003; Benoit & Brazeal, 2002; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999; Benoit & Wells, 1996), debates can constitute complex instances of facework since issue and image are often interrelated (Hacker, Zakahi, Giles & McQuitty, 2000; Hinck, 1993; Weiss, 1981).

How a candidate goes about answering criticisms of one's policies, priorities, or character reveals something about the candidate's personality that cannot be ascertained without the interaction of the opponent. In this respect, debates are highly charged campaign events. Candidates must publicly create and endure an adversarial relationship with face at stake while maintaining standards of civil regard for their opponent. The audience watches for the purpose of deliberating who gained or lost face, and by implication, which candidate is best fit to serve in office (Hinck & Hinck, 2002).

The research reported here responds to the Racine Group's (2002) call for more longitudinal, theoretically driven studies of presidential debates. To do so, we outline politeness theory according to Brown and Levinson (1987), explain the relevance of politeness theory to political debates in terms of face, and suggest that politeness is a useful way to explain how debates accomplish their effects on audiences, a primary concern for debate scholars noted by the Racine Group (2002). Finally, we report findings from two studies of prospective voters in the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns and consider the promise of politeness theory as an approach to political debates.


According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness functions to regulate the potential for aggression in everyday interaction.

From a gross ethological perspective ... politeness, deference and tact have a sociological significance altogether beyond the level of table manners and etiquette books (Goffman 1971: 90); politeness, like formal diplomatic protocol (for which it must surely be the model), presupposes that potential for aggression as it seeks to disarm it, and makes possible communication between potentially aggressive parties. (p. 1)

Brown and Levinson (1987) argue that politeness is constructed, that the element of successful cooperation between members of a community is achieved through

a precise semiotics of peaceful vs. aggressive intentions (where the measure of precision is sometimes in fractions of a second-see e.g. Davidson 1984), which in assigning such momentous significance to what are often trivial substantive acts requires a constant vigilance over the manner in which social interaction is conducted. This semiotic system is then responsible for the shaping of much everyday interaction, and in so shaping it, constitutes a potent form of social control. (pp. 1-2)

At stake in interaction is social face, which takes two forms. Brown and Levinson (1987) state:

Central to our model is a highly abstract notion of 'face' which consists of two specific kinds of desires ('face wants') attributed by interactants to one another: the desire to be unimpeded in one's actions (negative face), and the desire (in some respects) to be approved of (positive face). This is the bare bones of a notion of face which (we argue) is universal, but which in any particular society we would expect to be the subject of much cultural elaboration. …

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