Political Tone: How Leaders Talk and Why

Political Tone: How Leaders Talk and Why

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It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Solving problems with words is the essence of politics, and finding the right words for the moment can make or break a politician’s career. Yet very little has been said in political science about the elusive element of tone.

In Political Tone, Roderick P. Hart, Jay P. Childers, and Colene J. Lind analyze a range of texts—from speeches and debates to advertising and print and broadcast campaign coverage— using a sophisticated computer program, DICTION, that parses their content for semantic features like realism, commonality, and certainty, as well as references to religion, party, or patriotic terms. Beginning with a look at how societal forces like diversity and modernity manifest themselves as political tones in the contexts of particular leaders and events, the authors proceed to consider how individual leaders have used tone to convey their messages: How did Bill Clinton’s clever dexterity help him recover from the Monica Lewinsky scandal? How did Barack Obama draw on his experience as a talented community activist to overcome his inexperience as a national leader? And how does Sarah Palin’s wandering tone indicate that she trusts her listeners and is open to their ideas?

By focusing not on the substance of political arguments but on how they were phrased, Political Tone provides powerful and unexpected insights into American politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226023298
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/14/2013
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Roderick P. Hart holds the Allan Shivers Centennial Chair in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author or editor of a dozen books, including, most recently, Political Keywords. Jay P. Childers is assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. He is the author of The Evolving Citizen. Colene J. Lind is a PhD candidate in communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Read an Excerpt

Political Tone

How Leaders Talk and Why


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02301-4



The Mysteries of Political Tone

People use words to make impressions on other people. It has always been thus. Within the first two years of life, we learn how to be hurtful and endearing, even with precious few words at our command. The years pass, relationships develop, our vocabularies thicken. By the time adulthood beckons, we have become rhetorical artists. By then we can do more work with fewer words by having learned language's vectoring potential. Others' words affect us in turn. What they say can heal our souls or crush our spirits. It has always been thus.

These principles also apply in politics, an arena with words aplenty. Savage words, destructive words, comforting words, inspiring words. Words from many tongues, words freshly coined. Legal words, monetary words, indeterminate words, suggestive words. Here, too, we learn to make fine discriminations, deciding that the Tea Party is "strident" and Barack Obama "reserved." We sense that Glenn Beck has the distinctive marks of the ex-addict: self-abasing superiority. We learn that Keith Olbermann's annoying glibness betrays his former job—that of the sports announcer. We discover that Newt Gingrich "pontificates" and Sarah Palin is "fl ighty." We learn that Joe Biden uses too many words and that some people distrust him as a result. We learn that Nancy Pelosi is "cold," Harry Reid "avuncular," Mike Huckabee "folksy," and Mitt Romney "bureaucratic." Word-sensitive Americans—which is to say most Americans—make observations like this each day and think nothing of it.

In this book, we think longer about such matters. We examine a wide swath of American rhetoric to determine how language affects our perceptions of others. We focus mostly on national politics, but only because it presents such an interesting tableau. We present some institutional analyses as well as some case studies—of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin—because these four individuals have been especially adept at affecting people's values and attitudes. But how do they do so? Why did we revile them or find them irresistible? Why waste our precious time with such distant personalities? When politicians knock, why do we open the door?

In their more self-regarding moments, your authors see this book as a counterpart to one of the finest ever written by an American political scientist: Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does by Robert Lane (1962). There, Lane conducts a series of exhaustive interviews with fifteen ordinary citizens living in the town of "Eastport," teasing out the political spirit of everyday Americans who, he found, were largely allegiant to the nation and tolerant of their fellow citizens. They believed in equal opportunity but not collectivism, in justice but not hand holding. Beliefs like these, says Lane, were reinforced by the men's network of associations in their families, union halls, churches, towns, and villages. Lane found that such beliefs did not simply fl oat about in the ether but were instead the products of everyday dialectic.

Lane was interested in Americans' political ideas, while we want to understand their social impressions. To do so, we could have simply asked people what they felt about a given political leader, using survey instruments to record their reactions. But we chose another approach for several reasons: (1) surveys often ask respondents to reflect on matters they rarely think about, thereby "contaminating" the people they hope to understand; (2) surveys, even the best of them, reduce complex issues such as health care, human rights, and taxing policy to bite-sized questions having little breadth or depth (except, perhaps, when examined in the aggregate); (3) surveyors restrict how subjects can respond to the questions posed ("agree," "strongly agree"), thereby forcing subjects into modes of response not of their choosing. Despite these limitations, survey research has taught us a tremendous amount about political life.

Here, we trace political perceptions to the world of words. When doing so, we try not to be overly determinative because words only do some of life's work. People are also influenced by how they have been raised, by their lifestyle choices, by their friends and associates. Their social understandings also arise from memories and expectations, from sudden life changes, and from pressure groups and media experiences.

Given the power of such forces, it is tempting to overlook words. But if critic Kenneth Burke (1966) is right, it would be folly to do so because words use us even as we use them. So we take words seriously here by examining a large dataset (around 30,000 texts) and tracking how politicians, the press, and ordinary citizens present their thoughts. We also try to get at an especially subtle thing—political tone—by looking for its roots in language behavior. When doing so, we refl ect on incidents people have long since forgotten: how a mother's voice told them she was upset; why one high school teacher made them laugh while another made them sit up straight in class; how an interviewer's odd choice of words signaled that they had lost the position halfway through the job interview. By the time people reach maturity, they have become experts on tone. But experts about what?

The Ubiquity of Tone

There are few words in the English lexicon more mysterious than tone. Even that haven of wordiness, the Oxford English Dictionary, seems undone by the concept, offering eleven definitions of the word grouped into three broad categories, thereby deriving twenty-one separate understandings. Lay lexicographers are no more definitive. Business leaders talk of setting the right tone for the organization and children are admonished for having used the wrong tone of voice. In the 1950s it was considered de rigueur to drive a two-tone sedan; years later their adult children sought out a toned physique. On other fronts, a reviewer writes that a movie's "tone is facile at best and smug at worst" (Puig, 2010, p. 4D), while the snarky judge of American Idol, Simon Cowell, enjoyed telling contestants they were tone-deaf.

Tone is an omnipresent if ill-defined concept, but that hardly stops people from using it. Aphorist Mason Cooley declares that "the higher the moral tone, the more suspect the speaker," while Truman Capote hisses that "the quietness of his tone italicized the malice of his reply." Former New York City mayor Ed Koch tells us that "tone can be as important as text" without telling us what that means, while Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis speculates that "we are not won by arguments that we can analyze, but by tone and temper." Throaty Broadway star Harvey Fierstein jokes that "the average voice is like 70 percent tone and 30 percent noise [while mine] is 95 percent noise," but suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton is deadly serious when declaring that "the whole tone of Church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading."

Historically, tone was first mentioned with reference to sound. One of the earliest known uses of the word in the English language was that of the fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole (1863, p. 249), who comforted the righteous with the knowledge that they would hear the "sweet tones of music" in heaven. Present-day musicians continue to talk of tonality and atonality, of tone poems and twelve-tones, and seem to understand what one another are saying. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines tone as "a sound of definite pitch," which seems clear enough until one hears linguists using the word as well. Written words, they declare, become enveloped in a tone language "if the pitch of the word can change the meaning of the word" (Yip, 2007, p. 229). Linguists talk of intonation, the use of pitch to denote shades of meaning, and how words become accented and thereby create entirely new meanings (Yip, 2007).

Despite this ambiguity, one thing remains constant: tone affects people's perceptions of others. Early discussions of this linkage can be traced to two European thinkers—Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Sheridan. Rousseau, in his 1781 Essay on the Origin of Language, made explicit leaps from music to language and thence to persuasion, observing that "a language that has only articulations and voices therefore has only half its riches; it conveys ideas, it is true, but in order to convey feelings, images, it still needs a rhythm and sounds, that is, a melody" (1998, p. 318). Taking the matter a step further, Sheridan argued in his 1762 Lectures on Elocution that tone is how people share with one another "the true signs of the passions" (2001, pp. 884, 882).

So tone is both oral and aural, spoken and written, verbal and nonverbal. It is also visual. Artists use the concept to explain shadings, with tone being "created by varying a color in its light and dark qualities." Visual tones, in turn, are alleged to have value, the "quality by which we distinguish a light color from a dark one, such as light blue from dark blue" (Krug, 2007, p. 106). In the art world, tone is linked to people's perceptual experiences: "The framework of light and dark areas that makes up any picture—the broad tonal pattern—is often what first attracts the viewer's attention and provides the immediate introduction to the mood and content of that picture" (Jennings, 2006, p. 219). Tone in art. Tone in music. Tone in linguistics. And in sociology too? When discussing the depth of color bias in the United States, Margaret Hunter observes that "systems of discrimination operate on at least two levels in terms of race and color. The first system of discrimination is the level of racial category (i.e., black, Asian, Indian, etc.). The second system of discrimination is at the level of skin tone—darker skin or lighter skin" (2005, p. 7).

Tone also has psychological properties. It helps create the backbone of a story, say Burroway and Stuckey-French (2007, p. 176), fueling its narrative voice. A "sinister atmosphere," they note, "might be achieved partly by syntax, rhythm, and word choice" although these authors fail to explain how such transformations come about. That is how it is with tone, a thing quickly discussed but hard to explain. Still, tone persists. Dylan Thomas's famous poem written for his dying father, for example, begins with this line: "Do not go gentle into that good night." We are immediately put on alert and then the tone darkens: "Old age should burn and rave at close of day." By the poem's third line, we are aware of the poet's anguish, of his urgency and frustration, and, yes, of his anger: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Tone becomes the clue to the poet's attitude about things. Poetry, when it is wonderful, draws us into that attitude (Campbell & Burkholder, 1997, p. 38).

Dylan Thomas is one thing—one brilliant thing—but we are concerned with more prosaic matters here. Our focus is on politics, whose tone is often plebian. Writing for Time magazine in late 2007, for example, columnist Joe Klein (2007, p. 35) argued that the Democratic candidates were "tone-deaf" on matters of national security. This is not to say the Democrats were completely inept, however, since just a few months later The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had struck the right chord for their campaigns: "In a city known for its fierce prizefighters, the political tone was purposefully gentle on stage here at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas" (Zeleny & Healy, 2008, p. A19).

What do such commentators mean? What are they seeing and what are they sensing? What does The Washington Post's reporter Mike Allen mean when noting in the fall of 2002 that George W. Bush's "government events had a political tone" (2002, p. A5)? How could government be anything but political? And what did reporters mean when identifying "political tone shifts" among black church leaders in New England during the 2004 campaign season (Paul, 2004, p. 2) or among Republican campaigners in Iowa four years later (Zeleny, 2011)? What did USA Today mean when declaring that Barack Obama had taken "steps to tamp down the often harsh political tone in Washington" during his first ten days in office (Hall, 2009, p. 4A)? Is tone a mere adjunct to politics or its very essence?

Tone vs. Style

We treat tone as a subset of the larger concept of style, which, in classical terms, refers to the full complement of devices—syntax, imagery, register, voice, predication, lexicon—that bring ideas to life. Rhetorical scholars have examined style from a variety of perspectives. Edwin Black, for example, identified what he called the "sentimental style" that was popular in the nineteenth century, a kind of over-the-top approach that elevated the grandeur of its arguments. Black (1978, p. 78) says that the sentimental style was "notable not so much for its stately movement or its piling on of adjectives or its tendency to tear passions to tatters" but because of the way those elements were combined in public oratory. In many ways, says Black, this fl orid style obscured reality even while revealing it, forcing audiences to reach higher, further, for the ideas addressed. Orators like Frederick Douglass and Daniel Webster therefore talked in code. It took a patient people (and an educated people) to follow its serpentine path. Such a style reverenced language for its own sake, a far cry from the hyper-efficiency of twenty first century political discourse.

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (1989, p. 13) has traced the style of early feminism, an approach that combined "the crafts of housewifery" with the overtones of maternal care. The result, says Campbell, was a highly personal style quite distinct from the formal, masculine approach common at the time. The feminine style relied heavily "on reported experiences, personal anecdotes, and homespun examples." Recounting the approach of the early activist Angelina Grimke, Campbell (1989, p. 13) notes that she combined self-refl exivity with directness—"What came ye out for to see? A reed shaken by the wind?"—a style that befriended her audience and challenged it as well. With these words, says Campbell, Grimke let people know that she was strong but not brazen, personal but not cloying. A new political sensibility was born at that moment, and a new social movement as well.

Walker Gibson's (1966) analysis of mid-twentieth century America is also textured. He describes three forces operating powerfully at the time—a stridency born of the Second World War, a formality arising from an increasingly bureaucratized system, and a solicitousness resulting from the urban "hustle" of a mercantile culture. This resulted, says Gibson, in three rhetorical styles—tough, sweet, and stuffy—each of which produced a different rhetorical "personality" that reached out in different ways. The Tough Style demanded compliance; the Stuffy Style asked for deference; the Sweet Style requested amiability. Each style presented a different social character for inspection and each sent a meta-message about who could be believed and what was important. Operating mostly with his own keen insights rather than any scientific apparatus, Gibson created a kind of "style machine" to measure prose passages. His early work continues to inspire any serious student of verbal tone.

A more recent study by Robert Hariman (1995, p. 2) argues that our political experiences are rife with "relations of control" that are ultimately "negotiated through the artful composition of speech, gesture, ornament, décor, and any other means for modulating perception and shaping response." When seeking power, says Hariman, we inevitably leave behind distinctive markers of our quest, markers that are often rhetorical in nature. The Realistic Style, says Hariman, assumes that scientific measurement will lead us to truth, while the Courtly Style respects only traditional authority. The Republican Style is different still, trying to introduce an audience to some sort of transactional space where give-and-take is possible. Each of these styles, says Hariman (1995, p. 168), "provides 'the 'recipe knowledge' for effective participation in a particular political locale."

Generally, rhetorical studies of language have gone in one of three directions. Studies of conceptual style have examined how modes of thought interact with historical trends to change discursive formations. So, for example, Postrel (2003) traces the impact of aesthetic beliefs on modern social trends, while Lanham (2007) looks for their roots in new economic assumptions and Clark (2004) in people's changing relationships to the natural environment. Those who have studied political style have looked at how regimes of control become embedded in texts operating in a given polity. Connolly (2008) has examined the "punitive orientations" of the religious Right, while Pfau (2005) has looked at "conspiratorial mindsets" and Stephen Hart (2001) at "progressive identities" to explain patterns of social activism. Finally, students of cultural style broaden the object of analysis considerably, looking at how modes of entertainment (Farrell, 2011), popular fashion (Wilkins, 2008), performance routines (Brummett, 2008), and even hair and clothing (Walker, 2007) bespeak a given society.


Excerpted from Political Tone by RODERICK P. HART. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

PART I. Understanding Language
CHAPTER 1.  The Mysteries of Political Tone
PART II. Societal Forces
CHAPTER 2.  Diversity and the Accommodating Tone CHAPTER 3.  Partisanship and the Balanced Tone CHAPTER 4.  Modernity and the Urgent Tone CHAPTER 5.  Institutions and the Assertive Tone
PART III. Personal Forces
CHAPTER 6.  Scandal and the Resilient Tone CHAPTER 7.  Complexity and the Measured Tone CHAPTER 8.  Inexperience and the Neighborly Tone CHAPTER 9.  Ambition and the Wandering Tone
PART IV. Beyond Language
CHAPTER 10.  The Possibilities of Political Tone
Notes References Index

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