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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Making Sense of Political Ideology: The Power of Language in Democracy by Bernard L. Brock (Communication, Media, and Politics: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) explores the erosion of ties among ideology, language, and political action. Analyzing political language strategies, it shows how to dissect language so we can better understand a speaker's ideology. The authors define four political positions radical, liberal, conservative, reactionary and apply their techniques to contemporary issues such as the war on terrorism. They emphasize the dangers of staying trapped in political gridlock with no consensus for governmental direction and propose that the ability to identify and bridge positions can help political communicators toward constructing coalitions and building support for political action.

This project was initially inspired by the work of Bernard L. Brock in his dissertation "A Definition of Four Political Positions and a Description of Their Rhetorical Characteristics," written in 1965. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the zenith of the influence of the scientific paradigm that we discuss in chapter 5. The paradigm drove American liberalism's belief that refined knowledge of social affairs had replaced ideology as the source of political decisions. In 1960, Daniel Bell wrote The End of Ideology, declaring that traditional political differences based in ideology were eclipsed by the rise of science. Brock thought otherwise, inspired by the work of Richard Weaver. Writing in Ethics of Rhetoric in 1962, Weaver argued that an analysis of language usage was a key to understanding political ideology. He described the tendency of conservatives to argue from definition and of liberals to argue from circumstances. Brock correctly associated these ideas with Kenneth Burke's Grammar of Motives (probably also a key influence on Weaver). Burke argued similarly that strategic choices of language were a product of underlying philosophy, and as long as people differed in their philosophy, differences of opinion would follow and ideology would be critical.


In the midst of the chaos of the mid-1960s and drawing on these two works and others, Brock argued that ideology was critical to democracy and that the language used to describe our world and advocate action provided a window into deeper structures of thought and politics. Far from being neutral, the language used to convey political ideas reflected differing attitudes toward change and orientations toward the world.

Over the years, this original thinking about language and politics has formed a large part of the conversations we have all had together as we have

each tried to sort out our own sense of politics and public action. Those conversations intensified as politics in the United States came full circle in the last two decades of the twentieth century, with ideology seemingly meaning everything and, eventually, in the twenty-first century, seeming to drive the findings of national intelligence in the months before the United States invaded Iraq. The time of hyper-interest in ideology seemed a good time for us to share our conversations. We offer this book as an invitation. Join us in exploring how language helps us meet the challenges inherent in creating democracy in an ever changing world.

We began this project with a description of the practice of political communication in the United States early in the twenty-first century. We traced many of the dysfunctional characteristics of modern governance to the style of that communication. We particularly focused on the tendency of the science of political communication to separate political action from its ideological underpinnings. We next made the case for the importance of ideology in democracy, particularly American democracy. Ideology, we argued, is more than a mere label useful as a stimulation to achieve citizen response. In a well-functioning democracy, ideology provides the deeper sense of orientation around which political coalition forms and from which a consistency of political action is built. We called for a revitalized political communication in which political motives are well grounded in ideology.

Chapters 3 and 4 have developed a system for understanding political positions as an illustration of how rhetorical strategies can reconnect political action to ideology. The four political positions—radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary—not only generate different approaches to political issues but also enact different strategies to motivate those strategies in ideology. The concepts we have developed in these pages form a coherent system for analyzing political discourse to revitalize the political positions as useful symbols of political motivation. Our presentation of the system began in chapter 3 with the substitution of functional definitions of the positions for traditional definitions tied to ephemeral policy stands. Those definitions grew from the characteristic attitude of each political position toward change. In this chapter, we have analyzed the rhetorical strategies through which the selection and assembly of the specifics of political discourse—facts cited, values invoked, causes attributed, policies proposed—are woven together into messages that motivate public action within the consistency of political philosophy or ideology.

These strategies provide depth to political communication. They connect the ephemeral interpretation of a political moment into more consistent attitudes about change and the role of government in change. Finally, the system also explored the possibilities for relationships among the strategies characteristic of the four political positions. Because the political positions share attitudes toward the viability of the current social structure or toward the driftof current policy, natural points of barrier and possibility for coalition emerge across the political spectrum. Thus the motivation for coalition, so vital to a properly functioning democracy, can emerge from the strategic opportunities opened in the relationships among political positions.

As a system for rhetorical analysis, the work of chapters 3 and 4 opens a view on current political communication and suggests new emphases that would enhance democratic practice. In using the system over a number of years, we have found it particularly useful in organizing debate on particular issues. The functional definitions suggest the possibilities in approaching public problems. The ability to discern differing strategies and their ideological antecedents encourages attention to a full diversity of voices addressing the problem. An understanding of the rhetorical possibilities of each political position should suggest new directions for developing legitimate democratic response.

More to the point of our current political moment—the confused gridlock of early twenty-first-century politics—we believe that revitalizing terminologies such as the four political positions provides a vocabulary that facilitates the enrichment of political motivation that we find lacking. If political positions are to serve as symbolic touchstones through which political debate can organize, and around which coalitions of support can form, their role in political communication must be discernible. Revitalizing the political positions as symbolic touchstones does the rhetorical work of "ideographs" that we talked about in chapter 2: "Ideographs," Michael Calvin McGee writes, "arc one-term sums of an orientation.... The important fact about ideographs is that they exist in real discourse, functioning clearly and evidently as agents of political consciousness.' The terminology of the political positions has this capacity to place policy into ideological orientation in a way that clearly and evidently organizes the democratic public into an effective decision-making process.

In this chapter, we have drawn upon several examples of what Kennett Burke would call "rounded statements about motive" to illustrate the rhetorical strategies that differentiate the four political positions and the orientations of the left, right, middle, and extremes. Although such well-rounded statements were available to us, we find them all too rarely in modern political discourse. We would urge that political leaders and citizens strive to achieve suet fullness. When we focus on these statements, several characteristics they shad come to our attention. First, they are well-rounded, that is, they provide a complete and coherent account of their moment, a comprehensive understanding the excessive reduction of so much modern political communication seeks re response without such completeness of understanding. Second, they provide depth of understanding. They give reasons for actions they would propose. This connects them with the events of the world, with the values of the culture, with the cooperation of other citizens. All of the virtues of ideology in a well-functioning democracy come to the fore with this achievement of depth. Third, they tie actions to basic beliefs about how political action is properly chosen. In other words, they provide the basis for legitimacy. Ideology contains these judgments of appropriateness, and the connection with ideology brings them into play. Fourth, these statements provide bases for agreement and cooperation among leaders and citizens seeking to use political means to better their society. Fifth, these statements offer catharsis in addressing events in day-to-day life. They define success. They delineate processes. In this way, they provide the sense of social accomplishment so nurturing to democracy. Finally, when such statements are frequent enough, they provide a consistency in the political landscape that fosters identification of leaders and citizens in pursuit of common goals and in addressing commonly felt problems. They form a denser fabric of democratic experience.

Political positions are useful symbols of the coalition building that James Madison pointed to as the secret of America's style of democracy. If political discourse again achieves a consistency that permits leaders and citizens to cluster around political positions, the positions can once again take their place as central symbols in the rich texture of debate that characterizes American democracy.

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