As political rhetoric begins to heat up with the presidential race in sight, Morgan Marietta questions the invetion and influence of absolutist appeals upon the voting public. Here is a short excerpt from the Introduction to Marietta's newly released The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Persuasion for your daily reading. Learn more by clicking here.
The rhetoric of nonnegotiable boundaries—the language of limits—is an important facet of American politics. The shift in contemporary political discourse from a politics of redistribution to a politics of identity has included the prominence of intense, unyielding, and nonnegotiable claims. A great deal of political psychology literature emphasizes that mainstream citizens are often ambivalent, especially when their core values come into conflict.5 But much of the political rhetoric that citizens encounter is the opposite. It is unconflicted, extreme, and strident, taking positions that ignore compromise or negotiation, upholding a favored set of values while dismissing others.
Clearly the more closely a value is tied to a religion, the more easily it is accorded sacred status. Secular norms often do not seem to hold the same authority as those backed by a divine connection. As Philip Tetlock phrases it, "Don't do x because I say so has less impact than don't do x because God says so."6 But it is important to note that while many sacred values are clearly religious, many are not. Sacred in the sense discussed here does not mean holy; it means absolute, which is often but not exclusively religious.7 Several values within American politics that would be categorized as secular by most observers nonetheless have sacred or absolute dimensions, what could be described as the secular sacred.
Absolutist language has been a facet of American politics from the Founding to abolition to civil rights, but it may have gained particular salience in recent decades. The contemporary importance of sacred rhetoric is connected to three shifts in American politics—the culture wars, the rise of new social movements, and the significance of new media. Although some scholars question the extent of cultural division among ordinary Americans, among political elites the evidence indicates a large and growing split between advocates of progressive versus traditional sources of cultural authority.8 This division reflects the increasing concentration of American politics on issues of morality and identity—the move from redistribution to recognition, from class to culture. Conservatives and liberals are increasingly characterized by a split between the religious and the secular, rural dwellers and urbanites, clashing on abortion, gay marriage, guns, and public religiosity.9 Sociologists have characterized this same shift as the rise of new social movements, which work outside of the normal channels of party politics and have cultural rather than economic goals (compared to the"old" social movement—i.e., the labor movement). Prime examples include the women's, peace, and environmental movements.10 Many of the political issues and actors associated with new social movements also espouse sacred values. As Claus Offe observes, these movements often take uncompromising public positions: "Movements are also unwilling to negotiate because they often consider their central concern of such high and universal priority that no part of it can be meaningfully sacrificed."11
Political communication scholars add to this description of contemporary politics the rise of new media and the relative decline in the importance of mainstream sources of news. Beyond the expansion of television news channels such as CNN and Fox News, nontraditional sources of political information and opinion have taken root, especially talk radio and the Internet. The blogosphere is a particularly important source of citizen information and interaction outside of mainstream media, allowing citizens to be simultaneous producers and consumers of information.12 But bloggers do not need to be measured or reasonable, and may face incentives to be neither. New media allow citizens to restrict their consideration of opposing ideas and increase the stridency and extremism of what they do hear. The combination of these phenomena—the culture wars, new social movements, and new media—has ensured the prominence of sacred rhetoric in American politics. But what does it mean for democracy if, as W. B. Yeats lamented, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity?"13 Or could it be that only passionate intensity and its expression can overcome the lethargy of contemporary citizen engagement? To examine the political consequences of sacred rhetoric, I begin by addressing a series of questions: What is meant by the sacred? How do we conceptualize sacred values and rhetoric in American politics? And what are the possible political advantages of moving an argument into the sacred realm? This will allow later chapters to address two further questions: How do we explain the mechanics of these influences, or the psychology of sacred rhetoric? And finally, what are the ramifications of sacred rhetoric for the nature of American democracy and the prospects of the competing parties?
Marietta addresses these questions and more in his new book. Find out more online by clicking here.
5 Michael Alvarez and John Brehm, Hard Choices, Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); Stanley Feldman and John Zaller, “The Political Culture of Ambivalence: Ideological Responses to the Welfare State,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 268–307; Jennifer Hochschild, What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
6 Philip Tetlock, “Thinking the Unthinkable: Sacred Values and Taboo Cognitions,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, no. 7 (2003): 320, emphasis original.
7 “Sacred values are often ultimately religious in character, but they need not have divine sanction. Sacred values can range from fundamentalists’ faith in God to the liberal-social democratic dogma of racial equality to the radical libertarian commitment to the autonomy of the individual” (Philip Tetlock, Orie Kristel, Beth Elson, Melanie Green, and Jennifer Lerner, “The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 5 : 853). Many seemingly secular values may have older religious foundations from which they have evolved to become ostensibly secular. The natural rights foundations of the Constitution are a prominent example (Locke held that the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property were granted by God; in contemporary politics many Americans insist on these rights while rejecting the original view of their source).
8 John Green, James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Schmidt, Religion and the Culture Wars (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (New York: Free Press, 1994); Geoffrey Layman, “Culture Wars in the American Party System,” American Politics Quarterly 27, no. 1 (1999): 89–121; John Kenneth White, The Values Divide (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003); but see Morris Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson, Longman, 2005).
9 Even economic policy disputes are increasingly expressed in moral terms. One way to characterize the Tea Party movement is as an explicit attempt to recast issues of taxation and public debt as moral boundaries.
10 “Sometime after 1968, analysts and participants began to speak of ‘new social movements’ that worked outside of the formal institutional channels and emphasized lifestyle, ethical, or identity concerns rather than narrowly economic goals”; these movements are “concerned largely with values, norms, language, identities and collective understandings” (Craig Calhoun, “‘New Social Movements’ of the Nineteenth Century,” in Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, ed. Mark Traugott [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995], 173, 176). See also Alberto Melucci, “The Symbolic Challenge of Contemporary Movements,” Social Research 52, no. 4 (1985): 789–816.
11 Claus Offe, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research 52, no. 4 (1985): 831.
12 David Barker, Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Robert Davis and Diana Owen, New Media and American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Robert Davis, Politics Online: Blogs, Chatrooms, and Discussion Groups in American Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2005).
13 William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (ca. 1920).