The third voice of American politics.

Author:Hart, Roderick P.
Position:Essay
 
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This article reports one main fact but a fact with important implications. We find that politicians consistently project greater happiness than either the people they lead or the members of the press. To some that will seem a banal finding: empty politicians spouting empty pleasantries instead of wrestling with the legion of problems facing the country. Where is the news in that? Our response is simple: the sheer magnitude of politicians' optimism is so impressive, so long lasting, and so formulaic that it requires a reexamination of American politics. These findings also require rethinking what we know about the Fourth Estate and why it follows its favored routines so relentlessly. Most interesting of all, though, our findings direct us toward the American electorate itself, how its members process political information, and how they participate in the national discussion. Our basic argument is this: there are three distinct voices in the United States, each of which serves a different political purpose and each of which serves a needed purpose. To understand these differences, these distinctions, is to appreciate the American polity in new and important ways.

Normally in the pages of this journal, the American presidency receives direct, if not exclusive, focus. That is as it should be for a journal entitled Presidential Studies Quarterly. But it is also the case that the American presidency is inevitably a presidency in context. It does not exist in a rarified place removed from other powerful forces. There are three branches of government, after all, and so the president must conduct his business in a contested sphere where everyone is jealous of everyone else. The president wants Congress to do his bidding, a feat that is often hard to achieve, even when the partisan vectors are well aligned. The Supreme Court is jealous, too, hoping that the president will mind his own business and that Congress will make philosophically and pragmatically consistent laws.

Other forces beckon as well: The press constantly stalks the president, no matter what he has done, undone, or failed to do. These two great rivals spit at each other constantly, trying to outflank one another if not crush one another. The Beltway contains still more actors, including a labyrinth of bureaus, agencies, and commissions employing tens of thousands of people who (literally) surround the White House, alternately reinforcing and frustrating the president's priorities. K Street is filled with other presidential rivals--lobbyists making the case for corporate America, think tanks producing uncomfortable facts and figures, advocacy groups that are almost always in a bad mood. To this political menagerie we can add entertainment outlets feasting on leaders' missteps, religious institutions with knee-jerk reactions to all things political, the nation's military branches exempting themselves from overt political entanglements but feeding their preferences to partisan friends throughout the District. The president's neighborhood is a busy place indeed.

Given the high profile of all these players, it is easy to forget the people. But they too have preferences; they too have fears, anticipations, and lusts. Sometimes their sentiments find form via public opinion polls or TV documentaries, and sometimes voters speak for themselves via Twitter or Facebook. Equally often, though, the people's voice gets lost in a crowded environment dominated by well-funded professionals. As a result, it is easy to forget that the people too have a voice.

We will correct for that by putting the people, the press, and the president in conversation with one another. To be sure, ours will be a limited, somewhat mechanical, approach relying on computerized content analysis. But that technique also has its advantages when it distances us from details so we can see the broader political landscape. Using these tools, we will ask these questions: (1) Are traditional stereotypes of press and presidential communications borne out empirically? (2) If so, why do these stereotypes persist? What do they mean? (3) Do everyday voters have a distinct political voice? If so, what are they saying? (4) When the voices of the people, the press, and the president are compared, what larger statement can be made about the nation's political climate?

The Politician's Voice

A wealth of literature now exists about the nature, causes, and effects of presidential rhetoric. These studies range from considerations of how political ideas are rendered (Lee 2014), analyses of individual persuasive efforts (Garrison 2013; Vaughn and Mercieca 2014), over-time tracings of rhetorical patterns (Lim 2008) and political maneuvering (Wood 2012), and calculations of what presidential rhetoric can and cannot do (Arthur 2014; Edwards 2003; Wood, Owens, and Durham 2005). There have not been many studies of presidential rhetoric across time using replicable, empirical methods, but there have been some (Hart 2000; Hart, Childers, and Lind 2013).

What does presidential rhetoric do? According to some scholars, it serves as a behavioral marker, a distinct action that dramatizes some new policy (Campbell and Jamieson 2008). Too, presidential rhetoric can prime voters to like some qualities in a candidate more than others (Druckman and Holmes 2004). Under ideal circumstances, it can also cut through a noisy political atmosphere by featuring the president's unique viewpoint (Whitford and Yates 2009). Presidents sometimes declare "mandates," says Azari (2014), making it seem that people have preendorsed their platform. They can also use the past, say Atkins and Finlayson (2014), to "embed themselves in an imagined tradition" and thereby commandeer current-day perceptions. Presidents are inclined to speak more often when economic news is bad, says one scholar (Eshbaugh-Soha 2010), and they also work hard rhetorically when things become excessively partisan (Aberbach and Rockman 1999; Fleisher and Bond 1996). In short, presidential rhetoric is used for a variety of purposes but what makes it presidential? What can be said about the chief executive's institutional voice?

For one thing, we know that U.S. presidents are now engaged in a "permanent campaign" (Cook 2002), constantly trying to dominate the headlines even if no election is forthcoming. For these reasons, says Cohen (2010), presidents often "go local" in an attempt to commandeer regional news organs and, hence, regional public opinion. Presidents are also increasingly bold during press conferences, taking longer speech turns that permit less time for reporters' questions (Kumar 2003). There is also a qualitative change in presidential dominance, with presidents increasingly using a hortatory style--one that is bold, preachy, and unyielding--during their press conferences (Hart and Scacco 2014). Not surprisingly, says Bruce Miroff (2010, 211-12), presidential events have become spectacles "in which a larger-than-life main character and a supporting team engage in emblematic bouts with immoral or dangerous adversaries."

In short, presidential communications have become institutionalized, with message forms and message content now being tightly controlled. There are offensive reasons for such changes--the president can take the initiative when certain routines are followed (Krause and Cohen 2000)--but there are also defensive reasons--the president can better cope with elite polarization (Andres 2005) by determining when, where, and how he will sally forth. One might assume that such a sharp rise in partisanship would make presidents increasingly protective and cramped, an outcome that Newman and Siegle (2010) fear. But as we shall see here, there is also a more optimistic route available to the president and that, too, has become institutionalized over time.

The Press's Voice

The president of the United States is powerful, but he is bedeviled by a voracious Fourth Estate. In part because of the rise of the electronic media in the twentieth century, in part because of the president's growing attempt to set the national agenda, the press has become increasingly less deferential (Kernell 2007) and, perhaps as a result, increasingly consequential (Patterson 2007). The press has become interventionist, says Esser (2008), compressing politicians' sound bites, becoming more and more selective about the stories it tells, and constantly mixing and remixing the day's events for later playback. Sometimes, that is, the ways in which individual news fragments are edited become the story itself.

If presidents can prime us to pay attention to one thing and not another, the press can reverse the process (Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder 1982). It can, for example, make small things seem large--where a president goes on vacation, for example (Domke 2004)--but it can also trivialize events the president thinks are important--what a president says at a ribbon cutting, for example. "The primary, day-to-day contribution the news media make to the wider society," says Schudson (2002, 265), "is one that they make as cultural actors, that is, as producers--and messengers--of meanings, symbols, messages."

Because this is so, the news cannot be treated as a mere assemblage of facts presented in chronological order. The news is a text, after all, which means that it has an open, nondeterminative quality. For instance, by simply mentioning two factoids in the same story--Rick Perry's presidential candidacy, Rick Perry's new eyeglasses--the press creates a third story. Sometimes that story becomes the main tale being told--Mr. Perry is worried about his perceived intelligence. Technically, then, news reports are always a fabrication, even when the facts they report are true. Facts, that is, do not join a journalist's assembly line of their own volition. The journalist, not the facts, does the hiring.

Few scholars (or citizens) would doubt that the news is negative. Newspapers use the...

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