Political Communication: Scope, Progress, Promise
What is "political" communication? It is the construction, sending, receiving, and processing of messages that are likely to have a significant impact on politics. The impact may be direct or indirect, immediate or delayed. Direct messages may relate to political activities, such as an appeal for votes, or an appeal for support of a policy, or for compliance with a particular law. In the indirect mode, messages may create images of reality that then affect political thinking and action by political elites and mass publics. The message senders may be politicians, journalists, members of interest groups, or private, unorganized citizens. Their identity does not matter. The same holds true for message receivers. The key element is that the message has a significant political effect on the thinking, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals, groups, institutions, and whole societies and the environments in which they exist ( Berelson 1948; Lasswell 1969).
Karl Deutsch has called political communication "The Nerves of Government," suggesting that political messages are the stimulus that produces political behavior. He might just as well have called it the lifeblood or mother's milk of politics because communication is the essential activity that links the various parts of society together and allows them to function as an integrated whole. The substance and form of political messages circulating in a polity, and the images that they evoke, determine the thrust and quality of political life. This is why the study of political communication is an extremely important subfield of political science.
One may question whether political communication is a genuinely distinct field of study, or merely a particular context in which one examines various communication phenomena. This is a legitimate question. The answer is that it needs to be treated as a distinct research focus because communication in political contexts presents many unique challenges for scholars that require specialized knowledge of subject matter and of particular research techniques. Because of its significance to a full understanding of politics, and because of past neglect, much effort is needed to explore all the facets of the subfield.
Political communication is a field with fluid boundaries that is interdisciplinary as well as intercultural. It is interdisciplinary because the questions raised by it require political scientists to draw on sister disciplines, including communication, psychology, and sociology. It is intercultural because political communication features vary among cultures so that it is important as well as instructive to examine them from various cultural perspectives ( Gurevitch and Blumler 1990).
Looking at the subfield from a historical perspective, it is one of the oldest. Scholars from early times on have studied political communication. Confucius ( 551-479 B.C.) and Aristotle ( 384-322 B.C.) taught about aspects of political communication. Cicero ( 106-43 B.C.) and Pliny ( 62-113 A.D.) concerned themselves with the persuasive powers of political oratory. Niccolo Machiavelli argued in The Prince in 1513 that rulers must study human nature so that they can successfully communicate with their subjects in order to manipulate their thoughts and emotions. Machiavelli provided detailed suggestions about the manner in which princes might do that.
Princes and other practitioners of the art of politics have been keenly interested in political communication from early times on, knowing well that success in politics demands that politicians master the art of political communication so that they can influence their constituents' views about the political world. They have attempted to foster the construction of favorable images in the minds of their subjects through various types of verbal and nonverbal messages, including the symbolism of majestic architectural creations and elaborate public ceremonies, and public speeches. They have also sought to mold human minds through brainwashing tactics and terror, particularly during periods of internal struggles and external wars. They have used propaganda of various types and public relations tactics and political advertising