Reassessing the State of Political Communication in the United States

Article excerpt

Though the metaphors may differ, the same basic commonplace about the nature and quality of contemporary political communication in the United States dominates academic and public commentary. Intellectual leaders repeatedly tell Americans that political communication is baseless, is in crisis, and is lacking in substance. It is diseased, dirty, infected, flawed, poisoned, and/or hopelessly polluted by money and special interests. It appeals to the lowest common denominator, threatens America's standing in the world, and ignores the severity of the problems facing American society.

This cacophony of criticism and cynicism has persisted for much of the 1990s, perhaps in response to a series of events and occurrences over the last twenty years. Each new example, each new spectacle (e.g., Watergate, Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency, Iran/contra, the 1988 presidential election, Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill, Gennifer Flowers, the Clinton impeachment, George W. Bush and cocaine) evidences for the naysaying commentators the truly flawed nature of American political communication. Our nation is perpetually at risk, they maintain, and our democracy imperiled by the character of our political discourse.

We know these commentators because of the power of their criticism and the frequency of their appearance. Jamieson (1992) laments the "Svengalian power" of the mass media and concludes that "Campaign discourse is failing the body politic ... because it has conventionalized genres of candidate and press discourse that minimize argumentative engagement and ignore the responsibility that all parties should shoulder for the claims they make" (pp. 9, 11). Bennett (1996) warns us about "the governing crisis" where the "media spiral, the marketing syndrome, and the money chase in contemporary politics have undermined the connection between elections and government in the United States" (p. 10). We live in a cynical society, Goldfarb (1991) reveals, where "Leaders use rhetorics which neither they nor their constituents believe, but which both leaders and followers nonetheless use to justify their actions" (p. 1). Salvador (1998), reporting on the findings of the Eisenhower Leadership Group, fears that "democracy is at risk" because citizens are leaving the business of politics and governance to others (p. 3). Kamber (1997) believes that "American politics has been poisoned by harsh personal attacks" and that "democratic debate has been dragged down to the level of tabloid scandal" (p. xiii). And Hart (1994) suggests that our political culture needs a "New Puritanism" that resists television's tendency toward "emotional excess and servile distraction" and its capacity to "seduce America" (p. 163).

Our reading of contemporary political communication is somewhat different and significantly more hopeful. We suggest that American political communication is in many ways quite healthy and we assert that there is much to be optimistic about regarding the state of political communication in the United States. We base this conclusion on four distinctive characteristics of contemporary political discourse. First, American political discourse is often detailed and specific in its focus on policy. Second, this same discourse is generally successful at producing high quality leaders and leadership. Third, American political discourse is increasingly democratized via technology and media. Fourth, the success of political discourse in America has created a truly rhetorical politics to the benefit of the American community. In our discussion of each of these dimensions of American political discourse, we examine Bill Clinton as a contemporary example of the optimism about the contemporary political context, highlight ing his role in rhetoric's renaissance as a political force. Ultimately, in advancing this view of political discourse in the United States, we hope to offer an alternative direction for political communication research -- a direction that eschews cynicism for teleologically hopeful criticism, a direction that embraces progress instead of pessimism. …


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