-- presented at the Speech Communication Association National Convention, San Antonio TX, November 1995. Please cite appropriately.
On 3 October 1995, with a majority of the country standing mesmerized before it, the ubiquitous television screen transformed the latest sleazy TV obsession into a Rorschach test of race relations in America. Students of color from Howard Law School cheered wildly, white students at nearby Georgetown Law School sat sullen, as Orestes James Simpson was found not guilty by a jury whose identity had been carefully constructed in a morning box score of race. A nationally insignificant but ubiquitous murder trial had opened a huge gash on the face of America for all to stare into.
In the face of such horror, the politicians of America -- black and white -- assessed the impact of comment on their personal quests for the Presidency and remained silent. Finally, two weeks later and under threat of an embarrassing million black men gathering outside his office window, the President of the United States fled to Austin TX and presented a speech on race relations in America. The leading Presidential candidate of the opposition political party, rising to the demand to join the President in commenting on race in America, declared boldly that his President was a coward on the issue because he made reference to Minister Louis Farrakhan by allusion rather than by name.
So, as columnist E. J. Dionne declares, "Americans hate politics." Why? so many wonder. A better question is: What has become of the American system of politics that it lies silent before the great problems of the day? Are we, some are beginning to ask, reaching the stage that Americans reached in the early part of the nineteenth century when gag rules in the legislature and politicians with an ability to sublimate the great issue of slavery left the government incapable of its primary duty -- the peaceable resolution of disputes among its citizens? Are we on the verge of becoming an ethnic Bosnia?
I step back from the precipice of such a comparison, for my focus is a more mundane matter, but one so dramatically implicated in the problems that face American politics that its underlying problem is vitally important. I want to place the light of criticism on an obscure battle in American politics -- the rhetorical struggle of the ruling political structure to maintain its authority -- and the damage that the current strategies in that struggle do to the fabric of American democracy. In doing so, I will relate the problem to the contemporary concern with the health of the public sphere in America.
Statist Rhetoric -- 2
I will further argue that our current reliance on the electoral process as the central act of legitimacy proves to be extremely dangerous for three reasons. First, theoretically, it provides a brittle, narrow, interface between leaders and citizens. The scope of issues before government is extremely broad and generally complex. The decision of an election is single and simple. We lament that our election campaigns deal so little with issues, but they are crude vehicles for doing so. A focus on issues leads to the sort of "single issue elections" which often give us leaders of dubious quality. Perhaps the difficulty we have had in injecting issues satisfactorily into our elections is simply the structural impossibility of doing so.
Second, practically, the electoral process has opened the door to a government for sale because of the commodification of the process of election. Running for office today is an incredibly expensive proposition. We sell even our opportunities for communication between candidates and citizens through our system of mass media. Beyond that, we have invented elaborate identification and strategy techniques that consume large amounts of wealth in placing candidates in touch with their constituents. As a result, access to candidates is at least partially -- and to too great an extent -- tied to political donation.
Third, empirically, the electoral process is a dangerous choice for legitimation because it hides a minority government. Today, even the elections with the greatest participation involve just over half of eligible voters. That means that only the rarest of elections result in leaders elected by a majority of their constituency and in most cases nearer a third of a constituency has endorsed the candidate. Of course, we have the marvelous rhetorical machinery that cloaks these minority tallies into majorities and grants legitimacy, but such techniques have inherent weaknesses that can threaten the fiber of democracy.
My argument is not, of course, against elections. My argument is that elections are not enough. At the minimum, I believe that Jürgen Habermas is correct, that a healthy public sphere filled with a rich contextualizing discourse that constructs legitimacy is a necessity for an effective democracy.
This last move introduces the problem of the relationship between the public and the political sphere. In a legitimate governing process, the public sphere provides the power of creativity and stability that inheres in a rich discourse. The powers of language to give fresh vision and to structure problems, opportunities, and goals in such a way that the community accepts them as central to its identity flourish in a healthy public sphere. Leaders immersed in that public sphere can refine and focus these discursive topoi into sharp debate. This grounding of the political sphere in the public sphere provides legitimacy for policies, but also the creativity and common sense that is democracy's secret to successful community governing.
A healthy public sphere also legitimizes leaders to decide the issues of the day and focus the efforts of the community toward sound governing. A healthy legitimation process does not rely only on election, but immerses leaders in the public sphere as both listeners to, and voices of, public discourse. C. Wright Mills has described a healthy public sphere as marked by free exchange among those involved.Note 2 In this process leaders develop strategies by which they imbue their leadership with legitimacy.
We have reached the heart of my argument at this point. Today, the strategies that the American state structure employs to legitimize its power have come to erode the relationship to the public sphere rather than to ground legitimacy in it. The empirical truth of this assertion seems beyond dispute. Even the measures devised by the current state system indicate its failure. Only the most disputed elections can muster even half the electorate to vote. Opinion polls show little trust in governmental institutions. But beyond these traditional measures, the events of our day -- police racism, the bombing in Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, the militia movement, the "Big Mac" economy, and the disintegration of Urban America -- reveal crises without political expression. They tell us that the political system's measures are symptoms of a deeper problem. The task for me today, therefore, is to illuminate some of the strategies through which the state structure in modern American democracy establishes its power and to illustrate how those strategies weaken rather than strengthen the rhetorical fabric of democracy.
As we review the strategies generated by this statist complex to support their legitimacy we will see how particular strategies may satisfy necessary functions of leadership but in the particular strategies now used by the state structure serve to disable the public sphere.
Modern American elections have achieved a high degree of efficiency. They have done so, however, through the mechanisms of mass media, a cult of personality, and a rhetoric of image. The result has been a political sphere that is at once controlled, manipulated, and insulated from the public sphere. The resulting process yields legitimacy to American leadership that is too loosely grounded in the public sphere to avoid today's legitimation crisis.
The concentration of American elections on personality and image has been well documented.Note 3 I have little to add to the description. American campaigns are orchestrated by handlers. The campaign staff structures discourse around carefully selected themes, positions, promises, and the pushing of specific value buttons. These are repeated at rallies which are orchestrated by campaign organizations as energetic displays of candidate support. Most often, evidence shows, the so-called "issues" which emerge in campaigns are pseudo-issues -- the fate of the Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the 1960 Presidential race, Michael Dukakis' tank ride in the 1988 Presidential campaign, or Jennifer Flowers in the 1992 Clinton campaign.Note 4 Such issues are selected more for immediate effect than for long-term significance, and to draw distinctions between candidates drawn from a narrow range rather than to address the most important issues of the society. The American news media, ever on the lookout for a new angle or a twist in story, reduce substance in the campaign to implications on who is going to win, either directly or in contextualizing the story. Campaigns for lesser offices are even more likely to focus upon the personality of the candidate. Name recognition governs such campaigns and campaign communication often consists of threefold flyers listing boy scout accomplishments, military honors, and number of children.
My point is not to launch yet another attack on the American way of campaigning. Rather, my argument is that elections are inherently a poor central concept for a healthy democracy. We should not be surprised by our inability to transform elections into campaigns on "issues." Attempting to force them to do the work of a rich complex of public discourse can not be expected to succeed. Elections succeed when their role is to select citizens to bring public will into governmental institutions. Thus, they do have a role in legitimating institutions. But when legitimacy hinges on elections, the result is excessive attention to the leader, even a cult of personality.
In doing its best to achieve the power necessary to effective leadership, this type of governmental system ironically has reached the threshold of destroying its legitimacy in the rhetoric of statism. The role of the citizen in this system is as Dionysian celebrant at rallies and lever puller in the voting booth. The ritual of American election calls for carefully controlled campaign rallies staged by a campaign organization who designs and imports enthusiasm by the bus load. Too clever to be fooled, the news media packages polls as the "true" indicator of public attitude, thus denying the legitimacy of even this controlled public expression a role in the political process. As the elections proceed, the media reports issues in terms of their impact on the personal popularity (the electability) of leaders. Then, as election day nears, the media trumpets that voting is the privilege and responsibility of democracy. Every local and national newscast, and every editorial page stresses the casting of ballots as the central democratic act. "Reject Cynicism: Vote" screams the editorial page headline in the Christian Science Monitor.Note 5 This reduction becomes the central message of the centralized democratic ritual.
Once elections are completed, the ritual turns to a rhetoric of legitimacy that interprets the picking among two or three personalities, engaged in by about half the eligible voters, as the voice of democracy. "Voice" is, in this case, a metaphor, the voice participating in this fixing of meaning is the voice of statists -- politicians and media -- not the vox populi. Newt Gingrich asserts that the American people elected Republicans to implement the "Contract with America." Newspapers everywhere editorialize that "the people have spoken" and give their favorite issues center stage in explaining the outcome of the election.
In between elections, the consumers of political discourse never stray much from the election theme. The consumers of political discourse remain the mass audience C. Wright Mills warned against, rather than the involved citizen. Opinion polls begin concentrating on the candidates for President in the next election the day after elections finish, and use a thermometer of Presidential approval ratings as an ongoing measurement of legitimacy.
The rhetoric of statism surrounding elections concentrates on providing legitimacy for leaders and in doing that task reductively, leaving a void in the legitimacy for governing. The reduction that takes place throughout the process -- personality as synecdoche for policy, reducing the range of candidates declared viable and permitted access to media and to ballot, controlled reduction of discussion to issues identified within the parameters of the difference of candidates available -- are capped by a vision of democracy as pulling a lever in the privacy of the voting booth: a silent act given voice only by the interpretive mouthpiece of statists. If de Toqueville's vision had been so narrow, Democracy in America would have been a slick trifold expandable into a poster rather than a studied elaboration of rich communicative and behavioral complexes of public interaction. By successfully narrowing the vision of democracy to one where responsibility lies in endowing personality with power, the rhetoric of statism has endangered its viability to govern.
The scientific poll imbues statist rhetoric with the power of modern science as a way to listen to the public. But in "listening" we are once again at a key point of dysfunction in the public sphere. When the legitimacy of the political sphere is sufficiently contextualized in the public, listening must be fully integrated into exchange. It must be a listening which enriches conversation and open possibilities. Opinion polling is otherwise. Opinion polling frames public opinion as a small range of responses to questions formulated by the pollster. Because the treatment of the responses is quantitative, no variation in response is permitted. The questions must do their part also. They must channel complex questions such as race into simple, narrow response stimuli. Response is thus doubly channeled -- by the question asked and by the response considered acceptable. Such channeling is, however, considered the background structure of polling and is not reported as shaping the public opinion it seeks to present. "Public Agrees With Goals of the GOP" trumpets the Washington Post as Congress gathers under the new Republican majority.Note 7 "The major items on the Republican Party's agenda for the 104th Congress enjoy broad support among the American people," the story begins. The poll reported takes the list of issues of the Republican "Contract" and asks their importance to the sample. The article reports discovery of the cause of the November election results: "the public's conclusion that they now trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle issues." Thus, the story carefully structures public opinion by reporting narrow responses to the narrowly specified "issues" previously identified by the personalities elected in the narrow-participation electoral process, and then surrounded by the scientific aura of polling "techniques" declares a "cause" by interpreting beyond their data.
Of course, my argument here is not that polls get it wrong, perhaps they do, perhaps they do not. But the power of science in the culture is transformed into the presentation of "data" as the expression of the American people that those in government can then cite to demonstrate their "responsiveness" to public opinion. This is "usable" opinion, narrowly defined and projected to the public as a whole, but a construction nonetheless. As a construction it reduces in the same way that elections reduce democracy to voting. The inventive power of free exchange in the public sphere is lost. The shaping of a discourse of legitimacy through the creative powers of rhetoric -- metaphor, argument, contextualization in history -- are replaced for the political sphere by reading the report of the pollster. Having such efficient access to a constituted voice of public opinion frees the political sphere to carry richer conversation with a smaller circle of power -- lobbyists, political strategists, financial contributors, other politicians, and those with technical knowledge of the issues that have been chosen for their political power.Note 8
Although any politician can read their polls, the public opinion reduction is accompanied by a voice -- the reconstituting voice heard through politicians and media. Politicians motivate their actions by having heard the voice. "The American people have demanded that we pass this bill," Newt Gingrich intones. Lobbyists for the AARP provide the elderly with postcards they can mail to Members of Congress. The reconstituted voice gives public opinion a sound. Yet, that sound is reconstituted. It does not have the richness of diversity found in the public sphere. And it does not provide the sense of participation for those on the other end of the pollsters phone line that brings to the public a sense of a government that listens. Sam Donaldson declares, "Mr. President, what the public wants to know is . . ." Donaldson speaks, of course, with no more authority than the circle of friends and acquaintances with whom he runs. There is no sense of duty nor obligation for journalists who author such declarations to participate with the public in meaningful dialogue.
The construction of public opinion through the rhetoric of polling and the representation of the "people" is a rhetoric of the political sphere, not the public sphere. It seems often to declare its interpretation so loudly because it speaks without confidence.
The language of statism works most effectively when it can channel concerns into what we label "policy." It can talk about racism in terms of affirmative action. It can talk about changes in the nature of the economy in terms of retraining programs. This reduction establishes a particular logic of approach to public concerns. In the modern state it is generally a bureaucratic response: a structure of regulation or a program of response. Those who oppose governmental action do so in terms of its inappropriateness, thus invoking the same language. On some occasions they may favor using non-governmental bureaucratic structures, thus denying the publicness of interest. On more frequent occasions they dismiss the use of bureaucratic structures at all, fleeing a role in the issue. Opposing affirmative action as reverse discrimination is a narrow rhetoric with which to address the racism of American society. The rhetoric of statism "focuses like a laser beam" in the words of the advice to political candidates, and in doing so it leaves a void beyond its narrow focus.
But there is a second reduction that is even more debilitating about the rhetoric of statism: the reduction of action to a logic of material fact. In the complex discourse of the public sphere, language values, seeks alliance and division, envisions, characterizes, and motivates. When statist discourse deals with these elements it does even that in material terms: it treats values as commodities that can be "sold," "given to the young," and committed to. But overwhelmingly it sees policy decisions in terms of their "causes," their "effects," the facts about the problem they point to. This rhetoric construes the role of governing as the construing of fact and responding to those facts with "programs." They are most comfortable in a technical language that weighs costs and benefits in a quantifiable way.
The final reduction goes to the heart of rhetorical processes themselves: the placement of authority. The rhetoric of statism fosters a cult of experts. If the key questions are ones of cause, effect, costs, benefits, and so forth, the opinions -- the doxa -- of the people is irrelevant to these facts. If the responsibility of the state is to determine factual knowledge and to apply that factual discovery to institutions, then those with the most knowledge of the specific relevant matters to policy are granted the most authority. This, of course, deauthorizes the general public understanding and makes listening to public opinion less important and participation in public conversation unnecessary. The result is a privilege on bureaucracy with its localized expertise. Drawing public concerns into this triple reduction removes the issue from the public sphere because it deprivileges the democracy in favor of those who have the deeper understanding of the problem. It establishes a criteria for leadership that alienates the voices of the public sphere.
Of course, the people are always constructed as supporters in democracy, which returns us to the strategies of public opinion. The language of values, visions, and such other immaterialities are not fully expressible in the political sphere. Those skilled in that arena have a natural difficulty in engaging in such discourse. For that reason, again the linkage between the political and the public spheres is a stressed fabric.
. Perhaps the place for government is in this world of determination and reaction. But if so, the political needs of a community -- a system of negotiating the values that make a community a desirable place to live, a system to construct public will and implement the community envisioned by that will -- do not impact government. And in the absence of a political outlet to address the community's attitudes toward race, the transformation of the economy from the computer age, internationalism, the genetic age, and countless other influences on the quality of life, how can people who would turn to the public sphere to address these problems do so?
The other emerging strategy is to disparage the intelligence of the electorate. As the 1994 elections approached, several journalists decided that they had enough of the media bashing. They launched attacks of the sort: the people really have the quality of government that they deserve. Molly Ivins, columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, summarized their position:
The Times says we're worried about the unknown. Cox News Service says television is feeding our discontent by showing us how our government works on C-SPAN. Several great minds claim that negative political ads are responsible. We've been diagnosed with anxiety, fear of the future, being unsettled on account of we're in a "transitional era" and also accused of being just plain dumb and selfish.Note 10
The attacks that Ivins refers to, magnified on television by George Will and Sam Donaldson of ABC's David Brinkley in Washington, represent an acknowledgment of the legitimacy problem faced by the current political sphere. The analysis of that problem by these claims is to place the focus on the intelligence of the personalities in the public sphere. But the public sphere is not fundamentally about personalities nor is its intelligence the fundamental question in the legitimacy of democracy. A plea to "leave us alone" from those in the governing structure is a dangerous position in a democracy and a symptom of the tear between the public and the political spheres.
The focus of work on this problem must be on communication practices within American democracy. Habermas has provided some theoretical guidelines in his early work. Perhaps the most incisive critique of the Twentieth Century democratic practice, however, is C. Wright Mills' theory that focuses directly on communication. Mills contrasts public and mass communication:
In a public as I understand the term, virtually as many people express opinions as receive them; public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back to any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion readily finds an outlet in effective action against, if necessary, prevailing system and agents of authority, and authoritative institutions do not interpenetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.
Mass communication has the opposite characteristics: some have more access to media than others, it is directional, and the public becomes an audience. "The public and the mass may be most readily distinguished," he suggests, "by their dominant modes of communications: in a community of publics, discussion is the ascendant mode of communication, and the mass media, if they exist, simply enlarge and animate discussion, linking one primary public with the discussions of another. In a mass society, the dominant type of communication is by the formal media and the publics become media markets, by which I mean all those exposed to the contents of given mass media."Note 11 Certainly, Mills describes our current communication patterns as mass communications rather than as public.
I believe that our discipline is complicit in this erosion of democracy. Our fascination has been with what we might follow Mills and call mass speaking rather than public speaking. With few but important exceptions, we have studied speaking in the political sphere in understanding democracy. We have also been restricted by our tendency to view the rhetorical act within a purpose-strategy complex dictated by speaker intent. An analysis such as mine begins by resisting such a structure by framing purpose as itself an element of strategy.
Certainly, we have the insights to refocus our attention toward the critique of statism. The current work aimed at improving the discourse of the public sphere is central to that critique. In addition, contemporary rhetoric provides theoretical resources to expand our account of the powers of discourse from mere persuasion to the full inventive and social powers of language. And the importance of isolated projects such as Barnett Pearce's work in Project Kaleidescope, Michael and Suzanne Osborn's work with the National Issues Forum, Diana Carlin's work with community groups as an integral part of presidential debates are small starts in working practically toward the problem.
But I fear I am being too optimistic. The power of the current strategies over the political sphere are immense. The power of the political sphere to "repair" the signs of its breakdown are frightening. Intricate strategies provide a seal against the sort of critique I have delivered here. We certainly have not reached the stage that was reached in the mid-nineteenth century when the political sphere failed and Civil War resulted. But the failure of current political institutions have increased the intensity of political fringes and eroded the meaningfulness of political participation. Perhaps the best reason for optimism is my memory of the courses that I, and others in our discipline, taught two decades ago that instructed this generation of the political sphere in the very strategies that I now deplore. Perhaps the power of our teaching can construct a stronger public sphere and reintegrate the two spheres in a more meaningful public democracy.
1. Habermas' economy of spheres in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [1962; Translated by Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)] is somewhat confusing. He differentiates between the "sphere of public authority" and the "private realm." Within the latter he differentiates between "civil society" and "public sphere in the political realm" which emerges from the "public sphere in the world of letters" (p. 30). I have chosen to lay this out by substituting "political sphere" for the "sphere of public authority" and "public sphere" for the "public sphere in the political realm." The treatment of the public sphere up to now has often taken the term to refer to the discourse through which public business is conducted -- thus merging what I am labeling the public and political spheres. This union probably owes its existence to confusing Habermas' formulation with the earlier work of Dewey, Lippman, Mills, and other Americans writing on the matter. Obviously, my critique of the relationship between what I am labeling the public and political spheres requires my adopting Habermas' distinction. I hasten to add that Habermas' treatment of the public sphere in this volume is essentially historical. My use of terms does not extend beyond that to endorsing any particular historical configuration of the sphere. Indeed, I believe that much work remains on the nature of a democratic public sphere.
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2. "Mass Society and Liberal Education" in Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 355.
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3. Thomas E. Patterson and Robert D. McClure, The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics (New York: Putnam, 1976). Michael J. Robinson and Margaret A. Sheehan, Over the Wire and On TV: CBS and UPI in Campaign '80 (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
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4. Systematic study of media coverage of the 1976 Presidential campaign indicated that 48.6 percent of the issue coverage in that campaign dealt with the so-called pseudo-issues compared to about 39 percent for domestic or international issues. Only 34.2 percent of the coverage segments in that year focused on issues. Although there were a range of pseudo issues during that campaign, the two most widespread were Earl Butz' ethnic joke and Jimmy Carter's Playboy interview. James F. Klumpp, Daniel L. Sullivan, and Dennis Garrett, "The Issue-Image Dichotomy: A Study of Political Communication and TV News," Central States Speech Association Annual Convention, April 1977.
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5. 31 October 1994, p. 18.
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6. Stuctural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
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7. Balz, Dan, and Richard Morin, "Public Agrees With Goals of the GOP," Washington Post, 6 February 1995, p. A8.
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8. This notion of issues shaping political power as much as addressing problems is elaborated in the example of the War on Poverty in David Zarefsky's President Johnson's War on Poverty (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986).
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9. Nightline, 10 February 1993.
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10. "The New Dolts of Democracy," Washington Post, 4 November 1994, p. A25.
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11. "Mass Society and Liberal Education," p. 355.
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