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ORCID

https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2551-1435

Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

School of Communication Studies

Advisor(s)

Dr. Dan Schill

Dr. Susan Opt

Dr. Lars Kristiansen

Abstract

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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