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The study of rhetoric and politics examines the role of persuasion in the political process. Classical scholars conceived of rhetoric as a practical art involving the performance of public oratory in the contexts of politics, law, and ceremonial occasions, separated from the philosophy of knowledge.
While twentieth-century rhetorical scholars continued to address the role of persuasion in the public sphere, its study has more recently expanded beyond public oratory to include other persuasive texts, including advertisements, films, photographs, television, or digital news. Rhetoricians of today also recognize the epistemological contributions of rhetoric, which accentuate its role in creating knowledge and constituting perceptions of political reality.
Scholarship that intersects rhetoric and politics includes not only the study of electoral politics, but other forms of political persuasion involving institutions (e.g., governments, corporations) and individuals and/or groups working to disrupt such institutional power (e.g., activist leaders and social movements). Such scholarship often relies on humanistic methodologies yet also utilizes social scientific measurements.
The study of rhetoric and politics often focuses on two broad areas of examination: the consideration of history in the study of rhetoric and politics and the examination of how political messages make meaning. The study of rhetoric is often attuned to the history of ideas and how public texts contribute to the evolutionary understanding of political and cultural conflicts and norms. A public text, thus, functions as a historical artifact, which reflects the political and cultural ideas of the moment in which it was created. For some, an understanding of the historical and political context represents a necessary component in the comprehension of textual meaning. Rhetoricians also are mindful of rhetoric’s role in creating historical narratives, which are likewise dependent on arguments and evidence.
Regardless of its rhetorical dimensions, history serves as a key component in the study of rhetoric and politics. Rhetorical analyses cognizant of history demonstrate how rhetoric helps enact, empower, and constrain human behavior over time, excavating the “rhetorical climate of an age” (Zarefsky 1998, 31). For some, understanding the relationship among history, rhetoric, and politics necessitates an examination of archival resources that inform the meanings of the public discourse. Rhetorical scholars attending to political messages often rely on social scientific and critical- historical perspectives in their scholarship. Utilizing social scientific methods, Hart, for example, demonstrates his theoretical conclusions about political messages with his creation of a computer program (DICTION), which examines the “unconscious language choices people use when talking to one another” (Hart 2000, 4). Analyzing over 20,000 public texts into DICTION, Hart contends that political campaigns ideally reinvigorate the country, involving a “conversation” among candidates, the media, and the public. In the end, he offers an optimistic assessment of campaigning and its democratizing tendencies.
Other scholars of rhetoric and politics interrogate the nuances of meanings, utilizing, among others, rhetorical, political, and media theories as critical lenses by which to analyze public discourse. With such critical perspectives, objectivity is often shunned in favor of a rhetorical critic’s insights that offer new ways to understand discursive meaning. Questions of ideology and thus power are often foundational to rhetorical studies focused on political meaning.
In the end, attention to issues of civic engagement represents for many the foremost outcome of scholarship associated with the study of rhetoric and politics. Scholars often return to rhetoric’s roots when detailing notions of civic engagement, recognizing the contributions of Aristotle and Cicero, in particular, to notions of citizenship and rhetorical practice. The scholarship is designed to help promote civic engagement among citizens, particularly students in the earliest stages of civic consciousness, strengthening the relationship between democratic practice and rhetorical principles. Sh awn J. Parry –Giles.
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- Hart, R. P. (2000). Campaign talk: Why elections are good for us. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kennedy, G. (trans.) (1991). Aristotle, On Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Parry-Giles, S. J. & Hogan J. M. (eds.) (2010). Introduction: The study of rhetoric and public address. In The handbook of rhetoric and public address. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 1–15.
- Zarefsky, D. (1998). Four senses of rhetorical history. In K. J. Turner (ed.), Doing rhetorical history: Concepts and cases. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, pp. 19–32.