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Rhetoric in Civic Life
third edition

Catherine Helen Palczewski
University of Northern Iowa

Richard Ice
College of Saint Benedict | Saint John's University

John Fritch
University of Northern Iowa

Ryan McGeough
University of Northern Iowa


The third edition of Rhetoric in Civic Life continues our commitment to developing students’ habits of rhetorical engagement. Now, more than ever, developing and practicing the rhetorical skills of political friendship, stranger sociability, careful analysis, and civic responsibility are essential. The revisions in this edition are designed to speak to current and enduring concerns of rhetoric as civic engagement.

The text is intended for introductory rhetorical theory courses; courses on rhetoric, civic life, and civic engagement; persuasion courses that adopt a rhetorical approach; rhetorical criticism courses that approach criticism as an inventional practice; and other courses that are concerned with rhetoric in public life. It could also be used for advanced rhetorical theory courses, perhaps supplemented with primary texts from core theorists.

The impetus for writing this book came from our desire for a textbook for our own courses that would approach rhetoric from a conceptual perspective, rather than unfolding chronologically or focusing on key theorists. We wanted to provide our students with a sense of the disciplinary evolution of rhetorical concepts, but with an emphasis on the concepts rather than on who said what and when.

The impetus for the third edition was our desire to update the book to reflect current issues and events, including the increasing role of digital and social media in public discourse; incorporate recent theoretical perspectives on the role of the rhetor in a digital and postmodern world; expand on the centrality of race and gender to understanding rhetoric; recognize the emergence of networked public spheres; attend to the importance of emotion in public life; and explore emerging perspectives on looking practices in visual culture. We emphasize that it takes practice to develop the rhetorical habits necessary for democracy.

The new edition continues our commitment to provide examples that make rhetorical theories and concepts come alive. It also continues our commitment to work closely with our peers and colleagues who have used the book, reviewed our ideas for revisions, and recommended changes on the basis of their own classroom needs and experiences. We have sought to incorporate the feedback we have received in ways that would make the book accessible yet thoughtful; timely, yet building on historical as well as contemporary examples; and relevant, while also engaging the timeless concepts of rhetoric.

Our goal with this edition, as with the first two, was to help students understand how rhetoric shapes and creates meaning in the full range of civic life, from the instrumental rhetoric of deliberative and electoral politics to the constitutive rhetoric of epideictic public memory and identity formation. We wanted a textbook that students would find useful and engaging, and that also presented scholarship clearly and substantively, describing complex theories with the nuance and subtlety they deserve. We reference a range of classical and contemporary theories and theorists, comparing and interweaving ideas from the rise of ancient Greek democracy (Aristotle, Plato, Isocrates, and the Sophists), to twentieth-century theorists (including Kenneth Burke, Susanne K. Langer, Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Chaïm Perelman), to the most recent cutting-edge research appearing in the books and journals of the discipline. We wrote this book from the perspective that rhetoric—verbal, visual, embodied, argumentative, narrative—is symbolic action with consequences and, as such, deserves careful study.

We strove for writing that is clear and concise, but not oversimplified, providing extensive documentation through endnotes. We endeavored to define terms and concepts clearly and to provide an abundance of detailed examples that would resonate with students. By including extended examples and short texts, for which we offer brief analyses that deploy the concepts covered, we attempted to show students how a rhetorical approach offers an enhanced understanding of how social reality is created, maintained, and challenged.


This new edition retains the central features of the previous editions.

Conceptual approach: We have attempted to provide a heuristic vocabulary that will help students make sense of the forms, functions, and consequences of rhetoric. The book explores theories and theorists from an integrated, topical perspective. Thus, the contributions of some theorists appear in multiple chapters. We do not dictate a particular methodological approach, but rather offer a range of concepts that enable more subtle and nuanced analyses of symbolic action. We hope these concepts will enable students to ask smarter questions about the symbolic actions they produce and encounter.

Expansive range of rhetorical theories: The textbook grounds each chapter in traditional rhetorical theories, describing the core concept (rhetor, audience, argument, and so on), then extends the study of that concept by drawing from recent scholarship. For example, in the discussion of rhetors, we cover the classical conceptions of ethos, but also problematize the very notion of the rhetor with a careful consideration of the role of authorial intent in meaning making, the ways rhetors may both invent and be invented by rhetoric, and the possibility of rhetoric without rhetors in an age of algorithms. We also focus on identity as intersectional (rather than essential) and the possibilities of using strategic essentialism as a rhetorical resource. This approach enables the study of rhetorical forms from legislative debates and public address to vernacular body argument and visual rhetorics.

Emphasis on civic life and civic advocacy: Although the book discusses rhetoric across its many theoretical, cultural, and practical contexts, the central emphasis is on rhetoric in civic life and the inextricable connections between deliberative debates about policy and epideictic debates about civic identity. We want students to understand that all members of a public have a role to play in civic life, and to understand the range of, and limits on, each person’s power. We want them to understand that rhetoric has consequences—particularly for identity, power, memory, and ideology—and, thus, shapes social reality. We foreground the need to practice rhetoric in order to develop civic habits.

Detailed examples: Abundant historical and contemporary examples show how words, images, arguments, and stories have consequences. These examples, many of which are new to this edition, include recent activism in response to school shootings, videos of police violence against Black people, #KidsinCages guerilla art installations, school dress codes, COVID-19, presidential speeches in times of crisis, reparations, New Orleans Mayor Landrieu’s speech about Confederate monuments, media coverage of the opioid epidemic, Greta Thunberg’s activism on the climate crisis, abolitionist speakers who caused northerners to think of enslaved people as suffering human beings, political campaigns, national monuments that celebrate a shared history and reinforce a shared set of values, public debates over issues such as health care and immigration, and events and issues in students’ personal and campus lives.


As with every edition, we have updated examples, refined theory, and expanded our attention to race, gender, sexuality, and other vectors of marginalization. We have also updated the book in several significant respects. Major revisions include:

Updated discussions of current theory: The third edition pays particular attention to recent advances in rhetorical theory and evolving conceptions of rhetoric in a digital age. For example, a new section in Chapter 4 on the ethics of looking grapples with the way visual culture presumes a right to look and the dynamics of invisibility/ visibility/ hypervisibility. We have integrated new literature on passing (Chapter 8), circulation (Chapter 4), and an evolving conceptualization of the rhetorical situation in a digital and networked age (Chapter 9), among other updates.

Enhanced emphasis on the civic functions of rhetoric: The introductory chapter of the previous editions has been divided into two chapters, allowing Chapter 1 to focus fully on rhetoric as a form of civic action. The reconfigured argument chapter (now Chapter 5) foregrounds the civic possibilities of debate and overtly argues for argument as a form that has unique possibilities in democracy. Related updates include a new section on political friendship (Chapter 1) and theoretical implications of civic action in the digital age (Chapter 10). Throughout the book, we emphasize the need to practice rhetoric and argument in order to develop the habits of civic engagement and interaction.

Updated implications of digital media: Reflecting the increasingly complex nature of public discourse in our mass-mediated and digitally connected world, this edition includes discussions of the evolving conceptualization of the rhetorical situation in a digital age (Chapter 9), and of networked publics, public screens, networked activism, and slacktivism (Chapter 10). Numerous examples throughout the book are drawn from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube campaigns.

New appendix on rhetorical history: We have added a new appendix on rhetorical thought in classical Greece and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, as well as other traditions that influenced the formation of US democracy. For those who seek to ground their courses in these traditions, the appendix complements the first chapter. Alternatively, the appendix can be introduced later in the semester, after students have been introduced to general concepts of rhetoric.

Updated examples reflecting current issues, controversies, and events: Continuing our focus on providing examples that are both timeless and timely, the new edition has numerous new examples that illustrate the value of civic diversity and the manner in which people come to understand their world through rhetoric. Many of the examples that begin chapters are new, including new extended examples on Parkland students’ activism concerning school shootings, sit-ins as a tactic of civil rights activism, the 1619 Project, and youth activism in response to dress codes.

We are committed to keeping the cost of the textbook reasonable by limiting the amount of money needed for permissions fees. (For example, even short quotations from news stories can cost $250–$500 each.) Although, as rhetoricians, we realize that every word matters, that every sentence can construct meaning, and that a verbal description of a visual artifact is always incomplete, we often had to paraphrase and cut quotations or choose not to include an image, a Tweet, or an Instagram post because of exorbitant permission fees. However, we tried to provide citations so that people can track down the rhetorical artifacts we reference and, when we think seeing or hearing the complete artifact is important, we note that in the text.

Although we wanted to include more memes, tweets, and other social media examples, the challenge and expense of copyright permissions made this impossible. In many cases, copyright holders could not (or did not want to) be identified and so garnering permission was impossible. Similar challenges arose when we wanted to include longer passages or complete speeches. Our dilemma in this respect offers an interesting example of how broader institutional structures contribute to the amplification and preservation of some voices and not others.


The book is composed of ten chapters, organized into four parts according to the central facets of rhetorical form and function, plus an appendix. The organization is flexible: we believe instructors can teach the chapters in any order they wish, according to their own classroom needs.

Part I, “Introduction,” consists of two chapters. In response to suggestions from colleagues who have used this textbook, we have split the original introductory chapter into two chapters.

Chapter 1, “Rhetoric as Civic Action,” defines rhetoric and explains its historical foundation in democratic traditions. The chapter explains rhetoric as a form of symbolic action and as a central means of enacting civic engagement. It explores the rhetorical functions of generating identification, constituting identity, and constructing social reality. A new section on political friendship helps foreground the idea that civic engagement requires the development and practice of several rhetorical habits.

Chapter 2, “Core Concepts in Rhetoric,” identifies the central feature of
rhetoric as addressed. It also offers the persuasive continuum as a means of understanding a range of rhetorical effects and identifies rhetoric as both a creator and a practice of culture, ideology, public memory, and power.

Part II, “Modes of Symbolic Action,” includes four chapters.

Chapter 3, “Language,” introduces language as symbolic action, a novel idea for many students. Drawing on theories of linguistic relativity, semiotics, and dramatism, the chapter shows that language is not merely a means by which humans transmit information; it also constitutes social reality. The chapter explores the ways that a public vocabulary forms social reality through characterizations, metaphors, and ideographs, as well as the possibilities of resignification.

Chapter 4, “Visual Rhetoric,” encourages students to ask not just “What does an image mean?” but also “What does an image do?” It grounds visual rhetoric in an understanding of visual culture and examines the power of three categories of visual rhetoric: iconic photographs, monuments, and bodies. New sections articulate the importance of circulation to understanding rhetoric and offer ethical considerations about whether (or not) to look.

Chapter 5, “Argument,” describes the role of argument in civic life. It explores argument as a thing and as an interactional process, drawing on the Toulmin model and on theory about spheres of argument (technical, personal, and public). This chapter has been substantially revised in order to articulate more clearly the importance of public argument, particularly policy argument, to civic life. New extended examples illustrate major concepts. The chapter also explores ways to address challenges to public argument, including fake news and confirmation bias.

Chapter 6, “Narrative,” is informed by Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm and by Kenneth Burke’s comic/tragic frames, providing students with a critical approach to understanding narrative and the role it plays in forming memory and creating culture.

Part III, “Generators of Symbolic Action,” includes two chapters.

Chapter 7, “Rhetors,” explores the concept of the rhetor as both producing and produced by rhetorical action. The chapter introduces students to the idea of persona and its various facets, explains identity as a social construction and as intersectional, and explores the complex roles and functions of rhetors, with particular attention to how rhetors function in a postmodern world. The chapter also explores the role of authorial intent in making meaning, the ways in which rhetors may both invent and be invented by rhetoric, and the possibility of rhetoric without rhetors in an age of algorithms.

Chapter 8, “Audiences,” revisits the basic premise that rhetoric is, at its core, addressed, and that the audience is both the receiver and the product of rhetorical action. The chapter shows that when one audience is created (a second persona), another may be denied existence (a third persona), and yet another may emerge as eavesdropping or silently complicit (a fourth persona). In this new edition, the chapter also attempts to build a better understanding of public emotion, audience agency, and passing.

Part IV, “Contexts for Symbolic Action,” includes two chapters.

Chapter 9, “Rhetorical Situations,” takes a synergistic approach, drawing on Bitzer’s discussion of the basic components of the rhetorical situation and on his argument that rhetoric is situational, and on Vatz’s counterargument that situations are rhetorical. The chapter also explores Branham and Pearce’s discussion of the various ways that a rhetor may react to a situation. A new section on rhetorical ecologies explores evolving conceptualizations of the rhetorical situation in a digital age.

Chapter 10, “Publics and Counterpublics,” introduces students to current theories of public sphere discourse, beginning with Habermas’s basic model and incorporating current theories that recognize the possibility and productivity of multiple publics, as well as ways in which digital technologies have complicated traditional understandings of what constitutes a public and how publics emerge.

Appendix, Rhetorical Traditions and Democracy, is new to this edition. It offers a history of rhetoric and democracy, including the influences of classical Greece and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy on US democracy. It shows that both the benefits and exclusions of the classical tradition are still visible today, and that realizing the promise of democracy demands awareness and active corrections to sex- and race-based exclusions.


Key Concepts: Every chapter opens with a list of terms for key concepts. Within the chapter, each of these terms is boldfaced and defined, then followed by examples.

Discussion Questions: Each chapter ends with a series of questions that guide discussion and encourage students to apply concepts to the use of rhetoric in civic life.

Recommended Readings: Every chapter ends with a short list of recommended readings that students can use to explore the foundational literature of the field.


Scholarship is never an isolated endeavor. We are not, and should not be, confined to an ivory tower. Conversations with colleagues, fellow scholars, and friends always enliven our writing and thinking. Many of the examples and felicitous phrasings come from conversations with members of our intellectual family. Their influence on earlier editions continue to resonate in this edition, even as new influences also deserve recognition. In particular, we want to thank Robert Asen and Daniel Brouwer for help with all things public and counterpublic; G. Thomas Goodnight for help with all things rhetoric; Donn Parson, Arnie Madsen, and David Williams for help with all things Burke; Damien Pfister for help with all things networked; Karma Chávez for constant questioning of citizenship as a frame; E Cram for feedback about material and visual rhetorics; Sam Perry for feedback concerning lynching; Annie Hill for brilliant edits on the visual ethics section; Jeff Jarman for all things confirmation bias; Fernando Ismael Quiñones Valdivia for all things Pepe and memes; Cecilia Cerja for all things popular culture; Francesca Soans for help with obscure but apt examples; Christopher Martin and Bettina Fabos for conversations about current events and media fluency; Terence Check and Jeanmarie Cook for their conversations about pedagogy; Isaac West for refining our understanding of identification; Bonnie Dow and Roseann Mandziuk for correcting our misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth; Christian O. Lundberg and Joshua G. Gunn for help with all things posthumanist; Carole Blair for help with all things material and monumental; Brenda J. Allen for help with expanding the diversity of our examples; and Heather Bart for thoughtful examples. The colleagues listed above come from a range of institutions and career locations. But they all share one thing in common: whenever we sent a message asking for a bibliography on a topic, a review of new content, a conversation about a thorny theoretical issue, a confirmation that we got their research right, or just a word of encouragement, they delivered.

Richard thanks the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University for a generous sabbatical leave that enabled him to work on the first edition of this book. Richard, John, and Ryan also would like to thank their children (Hannah, Noah, Garrett, Byron, Harper, and Ada) for being tolerant and supportive throughout this process. We also want to recognize students who introduced us to some of the powerful examples we used across editions: Fernando Ismael Quiñones Valdivia, Nicole Brennan, Zoe Russell, and Evan Schares.

Previous editions of this book were transformed throughout the writing process as a result of feedback from numerous reviewers: Lin Allen, University of Northern Colorado; Jennifer Asenas, California State University, Long Beach; Linda Czuba Brigance, State University of New York, Fredonia; Bonnie Dow, Vanderbilt University; Janis L. Edwards, University of Alabama; Pat J. Gehrke, University of South Carolina; Zac Gershberg, Keene State College; Ron Greene, University of Minnesota; Alina Haliliuc, Denison University; Judith Hendry, University of New Mexico; Brandon Inabinet, Furman University; Jack Kay, Eastern Michigan University; Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Lenore Langsdorf, Southern Illinois University; Ilon Lauer, Western Illinois University; Heather Lettner-Rust, Longwood University; David M. Lucas, Ohio University; Noemi Marin, Florida Atlantic University; Michael McFarland, Stetson University; Jerry Miller, Ohio University; Billie Murray, Villanova University; Tony Palmeri, University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh; Emily Plec, Western Oregon University; Lawrence Prelli, University of New Hampshire; Jennifer Reem, Nova Southeastern University; Kara Shultz, Bloomsburg University; Steven Schwarze, University of Montana; John M. Sloop, Vanderbilt University; Matthew J. Sobnosky, Hofstra University; Stacey K. Sowards, University of Texas at El Paso; Nathan Stormer, University of Maine; Elizabeth Chiseri Strater, University of North Carolina–Greensboro; Richard Vatz, Towson University; Isaac West, Vanderbilt University; and Dylan Wolfe, Clemson University. Their challenges, corrections, and questions made the book immeasurably better. Any errors that remain are ours, not theirs.

Faculty who used previous editions of the book were extremely helpful in providing feedback through survey responses and conversations about the text. This edition was shaped by their generous sharing of their experiences:
Pat Arneson, Duquesne University; Keely R. Austin, Carnegie Mellon University; Elizabeth Benacka, Lake Forest College; E. Tristan Booth, Arizona State University; Brandon Bumstead, City Colleges of Chicago; Anthony Chiaviello, University of Houston Downtown; Adam J. Gaffey, Winona State University; Heather A. Hayes, Whitman College; Spoma Jovanovic, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Margret McCue-Enser, St. Catherine University; Angela McGowan-Kirsch, The State University of New York at Fredonia; Jan Osborn, Chapman University; Tony Palmeri, University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh; J. Blake Scott, University of Central Florida; Shana Scudder, University of North Carolina Greensboro; John W. Self, Truman State University; Samantha Senda-Cook, Creighton University; Elizabeth Chiseri Strater, University of North Carolina Greensboro; David Supp-Montgomerie, University of Iowa; and Anke Wolbert, Eastern Michigan University.

We also would like to thank the people who reviewed the proposal and/or the manuscript for the third edition. Their insights helped shape the text in a number of ways, both in our explanations of large concepts and in our attention to detail in many of the examples: Kamran Afary, California State University, Los Angeles; E. Tristan Booth, Arizona State University; Jonathan L. Bradshaw, Western Carolina University; Kundai Chirindo, Lewis & Clark College; Daniel Grano, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Elif Guler, Longwood University; Christine Harold, University of Washington; Spoma Jovanovic, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Casey Kelly, University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Randall Lake, University of Southern California; Angela McGowan-Kirsch, The State University of New York at Fredonia; Jonathan Rossing, Gonzaga University; J. Blake Scott, University of Central Florida; John W. Self, Truman State University; Samantha Senda-Cook, Creighton University; Paul Stob, Vanderbilt University; David Supp-Montgomerie, University of Iowa; and J. Thomas Wright, University of Central Florida.

We would like to remember the contributions of Jack Kay, Arnie Madsen, and Dan Brouwer. Not only in places where we footnote, but throughout the book, their influence is pronounced. Their thoughtfulness and brilliance is missed.

Jack passed away in early 2015. His influence on one of the authors, John, began when Jack was John’s undergraduate director of forensics. His influence is seen in the textbook in many of the examples and understandings of rhetoric. During his final months, he helped us by providing examples and thoughts about the book and the direction of culture.

Arnie Madsen died in September 2017. Cate’s partner and John’s friend, Arnie was a source of knowledge on all things related to political campaigns, argument, and Kenneth Burke. Arnie and Cate’s relationship proved argument could be a source of delight, play, and relationship maintenance. Cate’s work on this edition was made much more challenging without an editor and sounding board sitting on the couch next to her.

Dan Brouwer died in May 2021. His constant, delightful, and always brilliant support over the years influenced this book in profound ways. The many seminars and conversations Cate had with him resonate throughout the publics and counterpublics chapter. The discipline has lost a central voice in public sphere theory that constantly challenged us to hear the marginalized, the vernacular, and the embodied.

We honor these three rhetoricians by offering a book that strives to live up to their intellectual brilliance, delight in rhetoric, and commitment to democratic practice.

We also thank our editor and publisher, Kathleen Domenig, for her patience and guidance throughout the writing of this book. We are sure that working with an authorial quadumvirate is an editorial nightmare. We hope the end result made the hundreds, if not thousands, of emails worth it.



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