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Political Communication
Rhetoric, Government, and Citizens

second edition

Dan F. Hahn
New York University


In his Inaugural Address in 1961, President John F. Kennedy noted how much the world had changed since the founding of the United States: "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." Yet, he added, there were also some constants; most disturbingly, that "the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe...." Thus, Kennedy concluded, we "dare not forget" our role in the world.

In the few short years since the first edition of this book was published, there likewise have been enormous changes-a president has been impeached; the moderate-to-liberal Clinton Administration has been ushered out amid personal scandal and presidential pardon controversies as the moderate-to-conservative Bush Administration entered office amid ballot box scandals and presidential election controversies; and the budget surpluses of the late 1990s have been depleted, with deficits stretching far into the foreseeable future. Most disturbing, the relatively peaceful world of the last quarter of the twentieth century was shattered on September 11, 2001, and a war on terrorism has been declared-a war which may last indefinitely, partly because of the difficult nature of the goal, partly because no one seems to know for sure how to determine whether or when it will be won.

These changes are reflected in this new edition, but there also are constants. Many of the ideas and concepts put forth in the first edition are still relevant; many are increasingly important. Centrally, and perhaps what we "dare not forget," is that it is still important for students to understand how to engage in the political dialogue. So this new edition still focuses on the societal conversation that is politics and discusses the major elements affecting the conversation-the liberal and conservative ideologies of politicians, the arguments on which those ideologies rely, the language in which the arguments are couched, the ways in which the conversation may be undermined by government lies and secrecy, and the persuasive effects of media coverage. I have tried to sketch these elements in a way that will help students understand the political dialogue and enter it as active citizens.

Some of my students are upset by (and somewhat fearful of) terrorism; others are upset by (and somewhat fearful of) U.S. responses to that same terrorism. And while they rather naturally line up on the liberal-conservative continuum, they still are not sure what the differences are between liberals and conservatives, where they themselves fit on the continuum, or what criteria might be most useful for evaluating the political messages they receive. They vaguely believe conservatives are "hard-headed" and "practical" and that liberals are "dreamy" and "ineffectual." Many are "turned off" by politics even as they are idealistic about reforming everything.

This book begins by explaining the nature of the "ongoing argument" that is politics. I develop the thesis that the basic questions in politics, hence in political argumentation and in the distinctions between liberals and conservatives, swirls around a single question: "how much freedom versus how much order?" I explain that conservatives favor freedom in economics and order in civil liberties, while liberals opt for the opposite: order in economics and freedom in the sphere of rights.

After tracing the basic ideological arguments, the book examines the language in which the arguments are framed, the power of definition, the forms in which arguments are cast, the major outlines of political semantics, the mythic beliefs that structure the language, the major metaphors of political discourse, and the importance of sexual language-not only in subjugating women but also in providing subliminal persuasion about foreign policy, political candidates, and a myriad of other political issues.

The book then considers how the political dialogue can be undermined by overly suspicious government communication. Government uses of secrecy, surveillance, and lies are compared to similar practices in our interpersonal relationships, and evaluated in terms of how they can be detrimental to the health of the public dialogue, even as some of them seem necessary in the fight against terrorism or other national concerns.

Finally, the book examines the role of the media in the societal conversation. Specifically, I describe the enormous political effects of the media, effects beyond those normally attributed to them. That is, whereas the common view is that the ideological biases of the media shape the content of political communication, I describe how normal media practices affect public perceptions of issues. Hence, I examine how mediated campaigns affect both voters and politicians, as well as how individuals might go about protecting themselves from being unduly influenced by media representations of political phenomena. In a new appendix, Candace Todd of Lynchburg College extends the examination of the political effects of media into the newest medium, the Internet.


This second edition of Political Communication: Rhetoric, Government, and Citizens continues to be shaped by the three central characteristics of the first edition: (1) the concern with a broad scope of political communication, (2) the jargon-free "consumer" perspective, and (3) the rhetorical emphasis.

First, the book presents politics as an ongoing conversation about social issues, encompassing a broad scope of political communication. Without in any way denying the centrality of elections in our political system and the role of communication in electoral campaigns, I have tried to demonstrate the ubiquity of political communication in contemporary life, with the hope of demonstrating to students how central it is to their own lives.

Second, the book is written for readers who are intelligent but do not necessarily have much background in either politics or communication. I believe the level of sophistication will satisfy graduate students in both political science and communication, but I have avoided the jargon that would have made the material too difficult for undergraduates. I have tried to write clearly, using examples, quotations from the popular and scholarly discourse, and occasionally humor, addressing students not as idle spectators of politics and political communication, but as active consumers, i.e., as citizens.

Third, the book has a rhetorical emphasis that is manifested throughout the text, particularly in the enormous amount of attention to the language of politics from the standpoint of the citizen. That is, I do not attempt to teach politicians how to use the language; my goal, rather, is to give citizens some insight into how they can listen more critically to the rhetoric of politicians. Throughout the book, whenever politicians' words are considered, the central questions posed are rhetorical: Why is the politician using these words? What effects do they expect-and intend-these words to have on the audience? What do these words tell us about the speaker?


Although this new edition is structurally and functionally like the first edition, there are a number of alterations and additions. Every chapter has been rewritten, some only slightly but some in major ways. These "rewrites" have been undertaken with two views in mind-to respond to comments from professors who adopted the first edition and communicated to me their experiences using it in the classroom, and to make sure that the changes are compatible with the interests and concerns of the ultimate readers, the students.

Much of the rewriting has involved updating to reflect current political issues and recent events, such as the September 11, 2001, attacks and the responses to them; the 2000 presidential election; and other issues of the new presidential administration.

In response to suggestions from professors and students, I have tried to make certain concepts more accessible to students and more flexible to individual classroom goals. In Chapter 8, "Sexual Language and Politics," for example, I have made more explicit the intricate connections among economics, politics, and gender issues. (For those who wish to explore the issues in more depth, a new appendix presents "explanatory hypotheses.") In Chapter 9, "The Marriage Metaphor in Politics," examples from recent campaigns may also help show the continuing pertinence of historical concepts.

Because use of the Internet has increased dramatically since the first edition, I have added material about it in several chapters. A new appendix by Candace Todd addresses ways in which both politicians and citizens can use this new communication medium. Both of us focus on the great political potential of the Internet, but we also note its weaknesses and foibles.

I hope these revisions will help the new edition take students from where they are-confused, apathetic, yet idealistic, frightened-and give them the tools to get involved in the ongoing political debate. As Kennedy noted in the conclusion of his inaugural address, there is no one else to do the work that must be done "here on earth."


Although I hope I have grown intellectually since the first edition, I do want to mention my ongoing debt to Kenneth Burke and Murray Edelman, the two precursors who most indelibly left their stamps on my mind and without whom the field of political communication as I understand it would not exist.

I continue to be blessed with personal friends from academia whose conversations keep my thoughts honed—Ted Windt, University of Pittsburgh; Judith Trent, University of Cincinnati; Jim Chesebro, Indiana State University; Candace Todd, Lynchburg University; and, especially, Deborah Borisoff, New York University.

While continuing to be thankful for the excellent inputs from the reviewers for the first edition (Dennis C. Alexander, The University of Utah; Moya Ann Ball, Trinity University; Dale A. Bertelsen, Bloomsburg University; Thomas A. Hollihan, University of Southern California; Kathleen E. Kendall, State University of New York at Albany; Darin Klein, Georgia State University; Sidney Kraus, Cleveland State University; Kathleen J. Turner, Tulane University; John W. Smith, Ohio University; and Theodore O. Windt, University of Pittsburgh), I want to mention the huge debt I owe to the reviewers of the second edition, whose insightful commentary helped make the transition from first to second less painful than it otherwise would have been: Denise Bostdorff, The College of Wooster; David Descutner, Ohio University; Robert J. Doolittle, The University of Tulsa; Janis Edwards, Western Illinois University; James L. Heflin, Cameron University; Linda B. Hobgood, University of Richmond; Randy Kluver, Oklahoma City University; Donna M. Kowal, State University of New York, College at Brockport; Rob Patterson, James Madison University; Laurinda W. Porter, St. Cloud State University; Pierre Rodgers, Morgan State University; Jill Schmid, Willamette University; and Phillip Voight, Gustavus Adolphus College.

I have sometimes blessed and sometimes cursed my editor and publisher, Kathleen M. Domenig, for talking me into doing a second edition. But her steadfastness in the face of my wavering kept me at it; her support of the totality of the effort has been wonderful; her power of critical analysis has been not only useful but absolutely necessary.

Finally, I must mention my parents, Joe and Irene Hahn, both now deceased. Although neither was in the field of communication, I learned much about the field from them. From my mother, whose middle name, appropriately, was "Mercy," I learned that criticism and meanness do not go together, indeed are anathema to each other. And from my father I learned that although people do not always say what they mean, they do always mean what they say. For these, and many other lessons about communication, and life, and love, I dedicate this volume to the memory of Joe and Irene Hahn. I wish they had lived to read it.

Copyright © 2003 Dan F. Hahn.



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