Reagan and Public Discourse in America

Reagan and Public Discourse in America

by Michael Weiler

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Reagan and Public Discourse in America is a critical assessment of the impact of the administration of President Ronald Reagan on public discourse in the United States. The authors show that more than any president since John F. Kennedy, Reagan’s influence flowed from his rhetorical practices. And he is remembered as having reversed certain trends and


Reagan and Public Discourse in America is a critical assessment of the impact of the administration of President Ronald Reagan on public discourse in the United States. The authors show that more than any president since John F. Kennedy, Reagan’s influence flowed from his rhetorical practices. And he is remembered as having reversed certain trends and cast the U.S. on a new course. The contributors to this insightful collection of essays show that Reagan’s rhetorical tactics were matters of primary concern to his administration’s chief political strategists.

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"Reagan and Public Discourse in America offers a clear explanation of how President Reagan achieved popularity and policy success through rhetoric. Those who may never have understood Reagan's popularity will comprehend it after reading this collection."
Loyola Magazine

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Studies Rhetoric & Communicati Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Reagan and Public Discourse in America

By Michael Weiler, W. Barnett Pearce

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5407-7


Ceremonial Discourse

The Rhetorical Ecology of the Reagan Administration

Michael Weiler

W. Barnett Pearce

No single rhetor or group of rhetors creates public discourse. Rhetors constitute themselves as such within a preexisting rhetorical environment. At the same time, however, the addition to that environment of a new rhetorical element alters it irretrievably and sometimes fundamentally. We understand the administration of Ronald Reagan as such an element. We will examine Reagan's rhetoric in its interactions with the system of public discourse that gave it birth and yet, in important ways, was transformed by it. We advance a view of public discourse designed to account both for the discursive environment that Reagan faced as the 1980s began and the ways in which his own rhetoric exploited, regenerated, and reshaped the resources of that environment during his presidency. We refer to this discursive process as the rhetorical ecology of the Reagan administration. Our summary term for the direction in which Reagan's rhetorical interventions helped to move public discourse in the 1980s is ceremonialization.

We argue that Reagan's public discourse was fashioned chiefly from three subsystems of discourse: populism, civil religion, and national security. His appropriations from these subdiscourses were rendered in a style and by artistic means suited to the ceremonial trend in public discourse, a trend already well under way but much strengthened, nonetheless, during the Reagan years.

Reagan sustained his personal popularity by selecting from these subsystems elements that appealed at times to the meanest and most fearful impulses of his audiences and at times to their most optimistic, patriotic, and nostalgic natures, but always at the price of impoverishing public discussion. He used populist discourse to ally himself with "the people" against the government, thus blocking rather than facilitating a serious debate about government's appropriate role in a capitalist economy. He appealed to the doctrines of America's "civil religion" to invest his policy agenda with divine approval, thus demonizing his opponents rather than confronting their objections. He invoked the national security rationale for his military budget proposals and foreign adventures, thus placing these topics outside the realm of partisan political discussion.

In the sense in which we speak of it, Reagan's impoverishment of the public sphere did not render that sphere empty or void but substituted for the possibility of rational political discussion within it an intellectually unnourishing form of talk. We will use the three discursive subsystems we have named to describe the inventional content of Reagan's rhetoric, but these alone cannot account for its impact. The claims and appeals he selected from them were particularly appropriate to a ceremonial mode of discourse, but that mode comprises noninventional characteristics as well. We will point to several, including Reagan's extensive use of moral references, his reliance on visual images both as a part of his discourse and as scenic accompaniments to it, and his employment of pathetic rather than logical appeals.

That these characteristics fit particularly well the rhetorical exigencies of the times was no accident: the Reagan administration used a sophisticated array of market-research techniques to guide the work of sculpting a presidential image that accorded with the ideological predilections and emotional instincts of voters. The net effect of this potent combination of discursive resources and "effeminate" style was to ceremonialize the president's discourse during his eight years in office. Even when forced to address a particular issue, his was a rhetoric that announced decisions and called on the faithful for support. Reagan, however, was far more in his element when his topic could be addressed not in concrete policy terms but by way of a generalized sense of "feeling good about America." Here he could rely on visual images, employ easy-to-grasp slogans and endearing anecdotes, and articulate a moral vision more comforting in its uncomplicated fervor than comprehensive in its grasp of an array of viewpoints and relevant evidence.

By transmuting the rhetoric of the presidency into ceremonial discourse, sustained by an infrastructure of Hollywood entertainment values and Madison Avenue market-research techniques, Reagan enacted what other politicians had only attempted: a vision of the public sphere belonging more to Steven Spielberg than Thomas Jefferson, a long-running movie designed to make audiences laugh and cry, rather than a political space in which they might actively participate. No one has described this phenomenon more accurately than Ronald Reagan's public relations wizard Michael Deaver, a man, appropriately enough, who in the early days of the administration was said to have equal policy-making influence with Reagan's top advisers, Edwin Meese and James Baker. When interviewed by Bill Moyers for his 1989 documentary series "The Public Mind," Deaver identified himself as a "Hollywood producer" in his management of Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign and boasted of his ability to get the television news media to present the candidate as Deaver had designed him. When Moyers asked, "Should we be proud of what we've done in this regard?" Deaver replied: "Well, I couldn't change that. If I had tried to do what I thought was the right way to go about it, we would have lost the campaign. People would have been bored to tears. In a democracy that's interested in where their leaders are going to stand, in what they are going to do on the issues, that [a more substantive approach] would have been the right thing to do, but this country isn't interested in it. They want 'feel good' and 'fuzz' and to not be upset about all of this. They want to just sit in their living rooms and be entertained. No, I don't feel good about that at all."

The ceremonialized version of public discourse that Deaver describes produces two major effects. First, it diminishes the discursive terrain for dealing with complex public issues. It contracts and impoverishes the public sphere. It tends to exclude moments of moral doubt and strategic indecision. In such an environment a president must respond to even the most intractable problems with solutions at once simple and obvious. There can be no room for qualification, no allowance for unforeseen contingency. Since real social problems cannot be solved this way, ceremonial public discourse must become increasingly detached from political reality. In Murray Edelman's trenchant phrase, politics becomes a case of "words that succeed and policies that fail."

It should not surprise us that during the Reagan years the role of factual documentation in presidential rhetoric diminished. Indeed, his frequent misstatements of fact were treated by his handlers as unimportant. "The President misspoke himself" was considered an adequate excuse for even the most outrageous perversions of fact.

Those who did not agree with the president's views on issues were excluded from his conversations. Neither dialogue nor forensic disputation played an important role in the administration's public discourse. Scripted speeches were favored over press conferences. Not surprisingly, Reagan's finest hour was in leading the nation in mourning the deaths of the Challenger astronauts (Reagan read his script — written by his chief speechwriter, Peggy Noonan — over a background of striking pictures of the Challenger crew and the explosion of the shuttle); his most egregiously poor showing was his attempt to answer specific questions about the Iran-Contra affair.

A second effect of the ceremonialization of public discourse, and in our view a corollary of the first, is that it creates what it portrays itself as responding to: an apathetic electorate, uninterested in the campaign, uninformed about the issues, and increasingly alienated from the practice of national political power. A recent two-year study by the Markle Commission on media and the electorate found that an "astonishing number of Americans are indifferent to national elections. In a nationwide poll conducted in September 1988, 49 percent could not identify Lloyd Bentsen as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and 37 percent could not identify Dan Quayle as the Republican candidate.

Though Michael Deaver may consider himself responding to the way the electorate is, we believe that passive publics are made, not born. Voters may come to accept their status as inactive sponges waiting to soak up the received Word, not out of preference but from an overwhelming sense of helpless resignation. Insofar as political leaders make discursive choices designed to foreclose rather than to facilitate dialogue and debate, voter apathy is bound to continue and even increase.

Though the issues of a shrunken public sphere and its nonparticipating public are hardly unique to the 1980s, we believe that through the ceremonialization of its discourse, the Reagan administration aggravated them significantly. What follows is our explanation of how this happened and what it might mean for American politics in the future.

Rhetorical Ecology

We think that "public discourse" as a system can be imagined most usefully as a kind of ecosystem in which various individual discursive subsystems interact in relations of conflict and mutual dependence. Rhetors are forced to act within the confines of the ecosystem, and their discourses must reflect the web of relationships among its species and their surroundings. But as the rhetorical ecosystem evolves, as any living thing must, so too do its discursive possibilities, and within the system there is ample room for authorial creativity and cleverness. The rhetorical options available are thus constrained but not determined by the intertexuality of or "spaces" in the array of discourses that confront rhetors. Context both fits rhetorical action and is reconstructed by it.

Our view of public discourse sees it as static and dynamic, conservative and subversive. On the static/conservative side, we believe that the meaning of a text is neither determined by nor even necessarily consistent with the intentions of the person who produced it. Discourses generate meaning at different levels, and authorial intention is merely one of them. As Michel Foucault has argued, discourses may be defined also by patterns of inclusion and exclusion of which authors (and audiences) are unconscious. These patterns may be so pervasive and longstanding as to constitute "a historical, modifiable, and institutionally constraining system" of discourse, "reinforced and renewed by a whole strata of practices."

But just as language is, in an ideological sense, rigid and inflexible, so too does it possess inherently the potential for change. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put the matter: "The whole of language is a continuous process of metaphor, and the history of semantics is an aspect of the history of culture; language is at the same time a living thing and a museum of fossils of life and civilizations." It is not necessary, therefore, to deny the recalcitrance of discursive practices in order to emphasize the dynamic, recursive character of public discourse. Habits of talk are constantly being reinforced and reshaped, articulated to changing historical circumstances and personal histories of individual rhetors, and sometimes subverted. But they are still habits. Rhetors do not create discourse but are themselves reshaped by it. One thinks of the effect of human civilization on the biological environment. What may appear to be human control of the natural sphere is, in another sense, human accommodation to it and, in the extreme case (for example, the greenhouse effect), determination by it. To theorize the public sphere and its discourse is to suggest a kind of rhetorical ecology in which the intentional, strategic activities of many rhetors are in inescapable tension with, yet accommodative to, multiple patterns of intertextuality.

Similarly, we consider the relationship of language and power more complicated than a grossly materialistic (not necessarily Marxist) view might suggest. Though the vocabularies we use to name objects, motives, and relationships may reflect power relations in a given society, it is in the nature of language to escape the control of ruling groups. Claims, by their nature as such, invite counterclaims. Even in the most Orwellian world, the creative potential of language thwarts the efforts of rulers to circumscribe the range of social meanings. So long as politics is talked about at all, oppositional possibilities persist.

We are most concerned, therefore, with discursive practices that place topics outside the realm of public discussion. Jurgen Habermas has examined the process by which the range of public discourse in Western liberal societies has been constricted. He has noted how the "scientization of the public sphere" has effectively disqualified members of the public as participants in political dialogue in all policy categories. At the level of political symbolization, Murray Edelman has described a similar process, noting how the names we attach to various problems can remove them from public political, as opposed to private professional, consideration. "The most fundamental and long-lasting influences upon political beliefs," he argues, "flow ... from language that is not perceived as political at all, but nonetheless structures perceptions of status, authority, merit, deviance, and the causes of social problems."

Which and how many topics are part of public discourse is at least as important as what is said about them. In our analysis of the Reagan administration's discourse, we will attend to what it helped take out (or keep out) of the public sphere as well as what it helped put in. We will categorize (as three sybsystems of discourse) the inventional resources Reagan chiefly relied on, and we will describe the stylistic practices that characterized his use of them. We will suggest that the administration at once was shaped by and helped to shape public discourse during the 1980s, and that analyzing this process is crucial to an understanding of the nature and possibilities of public discourse in the decades to come.

Reagan's Subsystems of Discourse

The rhetorical ecology of the Reagan administration's discourse could be characterized in many ways, but we have chosen to emphasize three discursive subsystems: populism, civil religion, and national security. These categories allow us to describe what we think are the most significant contributions of the administration to public political discussion during the 1980s. Though they by no means exhaust the full range of those contributions, they do allow us to emphasize inventional elements we consider essential to the Reagan ethos.

In discussions of discourse the issue of intentionality arises. In this section, however, we are not concerned with the deliberative process through which the rhetorical agent chooses particular ways of producing certain audience effects. We will not attempt to trace the path between Reagan's intentions and the illocutionary status or perlocutionary effects of his discourse. The three subdiscourses we describe constitute the rhetorical ecology in which Reagan's utterances occurred. As we have suggested, no rhetor, not even the president, can enter into discourses in which what is said does not acquire meanings that extend far beyond the literal (in Austin's term, locutionary) utterance. It is irrelevant to our analysis whether Reagan deliberately used phrases and images that invoke populism, civil religion, or national security. Evidence of deliberateness indeed may exist, but even if Reagan and his handlers had not fully intended to use these discourses, the results would have been the same.


In any nation with a representative form of government, political leaders must devise strategies to identify themselves with at least a majority of those who vote in elections. Ruling officials must present themselves not only as willing to represent the interests and values of the public, but as actually sharing them. To share the values and interests of "the people" is to be, in an important sense, one of them and thus to be identified with them.


Excerpted from Reagan and Public Discourse in America by Michael Weiler, W. Barnett Pearce. Copyright © 1992 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Weiler is an associate professor in the department of communication studies at Emerson College. An expert in argument, rhetoric, and political communication, he is the author of research that has appeared in Argumentation and AdvocacyInformal Logic, and the Quarterly Journal of Speech. He is director of Emerson Community Debate, a program that promotes debating activities at Boston elementary and secondary schools.

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