Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


Date of Graduation

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


School of Communication Studies


Dan Schill

Susan Opt

Lars Kristiansen


The political communication behaviors from both the U.S. voting public and elected representatives contribute to a political discourse that is typified by hyper partisanship and extreme polarization (Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2013). Existing research (e.g., Feinberg & Willer, 2015; Haidt, 2012; Westen, 2007) suggested that this is potentially because U.S. Americans tend to craft persuasive messages that they themselves would find logically and morally impactful, rather than critically analyzing the positionality and belief system of their intended audience. Research on Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) suggested that, for a contemporary rhetor, understanding the moral, ontological, and ethical precepts that support their opponent’s ideology is crucial to designing persuasive appeals on moral issues (Haidt, 2012). This thesis sought to identify why the U.S. citizenry has such a difficult time communicating across political lines and whether the polarization in U.S. politics is driven from the top-down by political elites or from the bottom-up by average citizens. Utilizing the Rhetoric of Social Intervention RSI model of rhetorical analysis (Brown, 1978) as an ideal umbrella under which to unite the insights of research on political polarization, rural consciousness, populism, framing, social intuitionism, and MFT, the case study analysis examined the rhetoric of elected political elites as they debated the qualifications of Betsy DeVos, a contentious nominee for U.S. cabinet secretary. This study found it is possible for political elites to engage in audience- centered persuasive attempts, even if those attempts fall on deaf ears. This thesis also suggests that the centrality of a rhetorically Burkean view of identification as being central to persuasive success is underemphasized in many explanations of U.S. political communication. While this thesis is critical of Republican rhetoric during the DeVos hearings, this study is more focused on the interplay between the majority and minority parties in the Senate. Until the fundamentally communicative nature of the polarization problem is explored, it is unlikely that advocates and politicians will be able to break the maladaptive, conflict-laden cycle currently typifying American political rhetoric.



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