Disagreeable Rhetoric and the Prospect of Public Opposition: Opinion Moderation on the U.S. Supreme Court

AuthorMichael A. Zilis,Justin Wedeking
Date01 June 2018
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 380 –394
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912917738578
The study of elite rhetoric and its influence in democracies
has been a core focal point of scholars for quite some time.
While electoral campaigns and policy debates are proba-
bly the easiest examples of elite rhetoric, its study extends
to other areas such as the campaign to ratify the constitu-
tion (Riker 1996), as well as congressional and presiden-
tial behavior (Kriner and Shen 2014; Whitford and Yates
2003). The fact that elite rhetoric permeates just about all
areas of politics illustrates its broadly conceived nature
and importance. One well-known finding from research
on campaign rhetoric finds that negative messages tend to
be effective (Fridkin and Kenney 2011). In fact, the find-
ing that citizens respond to negative rhetoric during cam-
paigns is intuitive because in democracies elections are
designed to consider and respond to public opinion.
The importance and study of rhetoric, however, extend
beyond elected elites. For example, research examines
legal actors (e.g., attorneys and justices) and how they
frame legal arguments, finding that there are strategic
considerations that influence the content of their message
(Wedeking 2010). When considering rhetoric from
unelected elites that enjoy some insulation from the pres-
sures of public opinion, it is not obvious or clear why they
would be concerned about moderating their rhetoric in
response to public opinion. Yet, research shows that
unelected bodies such as the Supreme Court do modify
their behavior under certain conditions in response to
public opinion and political pressure (Casillas, Enns, and
Wohlfarth 2011; McGuire and Stimson 2004). This raises
an important question: under what conditions does con-
cern for public opinion lead unelected elites to adjust
their use of disagreeable rhetoric? We answer this ques-
tion by expanding our theoretical and empirical under-
standing of the use of elite rhetoric and argue that a key
feature of the political process, the salience of the issue,
has a powerful moderating influence on when unelected
elites use negative rhetoric. To test this argument, we
explore the use of negative rhetoric in the context of the
written opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even as various forms of negativity and incivility in
American politics are a source of interest for scholars,
there is increasing concern with disagreeableness on the
Court, with commentators lamenting that negative lan-
guage means the institution is “acting like Congress” and
738578PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917738578Political Research QuarterlyWedeking and Zilis
1University of Kentucky, Lexington, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael A. Zilis, Department of Political Science, University of
Kentucky, 1651 Patterson Office Tower, 120 Patterson Drive,
Lexington, KY 40506, USA.
Email: Michael.zilis@uky.edu
Disagreeable Rhetoric and the
Prospect of Public Opposition: Opinion
Moderation on the U.S. Supreme Court
Justin Wedeking1 and Michael A. Zilis1
Elite rhetoric is an important aspect of democracy, and understanding why elites alter their rhetorical tone is vital to
understanding the nature of public–elite interaction. In this paper, we identify the conditions under which insulated
elites respond to public opinion by changing the amount of disagreeable rhetoric they emphasize. We examine
Supreme Court opinions and theorize that the majority limits the use of disagreeable rhetoric—language with harsh,
unpleasant, or negative connotations—in salient cases with the intention of dulling public opposition to rulings. We
test our expectations on two levels, the first using a broad measure of public mood on a large sample of cases and the
second using a small sample with issue-specific public opinion measures. We find that as public opinion diverges from
the Court, the majority tones down its disagreeable rhetoric, but only in salient cases.
Supreme Court, public opinion, disagreeable rhetoric, text analysis

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