Elements of Political Communication: Introduction – Background


here are generally two ways to address political communication: as it should be and as it is.

One side of this argument often comprises writers and intellectuals. Frustrated with those who manipulate language for personal and political gain, they often complain about the nebulous language and misleading strategies of those who represent them. Among those in this group are writers like George Orwell, who bemoaned the purposeful misuse of language to manipulate and confuse rather than inform.[1] These complaints are nothing new; in Petronius' Satyricon, written in the late first century AD, the narrator expresses the views of the writer:

1587 Copy of The Satyricon by Petronius
Our rhetoricians tormented by another species of Furies when they cry, "I received these wounds while fighting for the public liberty; I lost this eye in your defense: give me a guide who will lead me to my children, my limbs are hamstrung and will not hold me up!" Even these heroics could be endured if they made easier the road to eloquence; but as it is, their sole gain from this ferment of matter and empty discord of words is, that when they step into the Forum, they think they have been carried into another world [. . .] every word a honied drop, every period sprinkled with poppy-seed and sesame. Those who are brought up on such a diet can no more attain to wisdom than a kitchen scullion can attain to a keen sense of smell or avoid stinking of the grease. [. . .] With your well modulated and empty tones you have so labored for rhetorical effect that the body of your speech has lost its vigor and died.[2]

On the other side are the pragmatists, who place more emphasis on the ability to convince than to clarify. Political strategists like Niccolò Machiavelli, Saul Alinsky, and Frank Luntz, though they each express very different views, fall into this category. The methods of this second group have dominated the modern political arena, but they did not originate from a contemporary source either. Quintis Tullus Cicero, in his Commentariolum petitionis, wrote:

I have heard a man say about certain orators, to whom he had offered his case, "that he had been better pleased with the words of the one who declined, than of the one who accepted." So true it is that men are more taken by look and words than by actual services.[3]

Though this is clearly an oversimplification of the conflict, both perspectives offer important insight. Neither purely clear and concise nor clever and careful political messaging is enough to appease the average voter, regardless of his or her ideology. This guide is an attempt to bridge the gap between these two schools of thought.