Fascinating, fascinating absolutist rhetoric in political communication

I read The absolutist advantage: Sacred rhetoric in contemporary presidential debate in a recent (2010) issue of Political Communication.

The more I hear absolutist rhetoric, the more fascinated I become with a public who consumes, processes, and refrains from challenging it. A non-challenging political environment was common when I reviewed the article, but I hoped for change—and recent political developments have provided evidence the public is challenging absolutist rhetoric.

Political language invoking absolutist rhetoric—one would rather die than yield—is much more common in political communication than actual absolute acts.

Absolutist, or “sacred” rhetoric often expresses moral outrage, and absolutist language can give a distinct advantage if used more often by one political party than another.

Absolutist language has a valorization effect, which makes leaders who employ absolutist language appear more principled, virtuous, and determined than others, enhancing their electoral prospects. In contemporary political communication, one sees absolutist language most often used by members of the Republican party. Noted social science scholar, G. Lakoff, has written extensively about the advantage in numerous published books.

The author of this article, M. Marietta, and Lakoff agree the Republican message is built on a metaphor of government as the father who will take care of you and protect you. The father metaphor works as a powerful communicative source because language works through metaphor. Democrats have since failed to attach their message to a similar theme. But, here is where Marietta’s similarity to Lakoff ends. Marietta believes the language advantage is from the use of absolutist, or “sacred” language to define boundaries and express moral outrage against anyone opposing it.

Sacred language is invoked as an expression of sacred values—any value a person holds to which they adhere and defend at all costs. Sacred values do not offer any chance for negotiation. Many people have one, if not many, sacred values. Sacred rhetoric is the political expression of these sacred values. Sacred rhetoric employs absolutist reasoning. Consequentialist reasoning, on the other hand, allows for discussion. Marietta provides many examples of the use of scared rhetoric in past American presidential elections. Clearly, the use of sacred rhetoric is not the only thing winning elections, but candidate might use sacred rhetoric to their advantage in the political communication of the election campaign.

I chose the article because I studied highly-partisan news media sources last semester in CMST 515 Political Communication. One finds a frequent and zealous use of absolutist and sacred language in highly-partisan news media sources. The article describes only presidential campaigns, but extrapolating sacred rhetoric to the entire rhetorical situation/environment logically includes highly-partisan news media. And this is important as well.

Marietta, M. (2010). The absolutist advantage: Sacred rhetoric in contemporary pesidential debate. Political Communication , 26 (4), 388-411.

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One Response to Fascinating, fascinating absolutist rhetoric in political communication

  1. KB says:

    I definitely think “a public who consumes, processes, and refrains from challenging it” has come about due to the early years of education (such as K-12). The professors I had simply wanted students to learn what they wrote on the blackboard and regurgitate it for exams, hopefully the state standardized ones. Challenge what the professor said? No!

    I also think later year education (such as college) plays a role. Here students are taught that people become experts in a topic – why would one challenge an expert? Politicians are supposed to be an expert in making the right decisions – when one says “x will help the economy, bring jobs, etc., and John Doe is a lair,” why would one challenge them?

    I think young children need to be taught to challenge thoughts and ideas. Build an early foundation of finding the truth for yourself and we’ll start to move away from being a society that only consumes instead of challenges.

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