The Rhetoric of Ideology: Talking Terror in Contemporary American Politics

In May of 2003, during a Press Conference with President Arroyo of the Philippines, President George W. Bush said of terrorists, “You can’t talk to them; you can’t negotiate with them.” In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the use of the word “terrorism” in American political rhetoric shifted and took on a very specific meaning. No longer just a general term for politically motivated violence meant to inspire fright and uncertainty, terrorism suggests imagery of Al Qaeda, extremist Islam, figures like Osama Bin Laden.

The implications of this shift in the meaning of the word are far-reaching and many have yet to be seen. My paper will focus on the political rhetoric of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, comparing their speeches regarding political violence and, in the case of the latter two, the so-called War on Terror.

This type of political language is best explored through the lens of rhetorician Michael McGee’s ideographic analysis. McGee describes an ideograph as “political language which manifests ideology.” Certain political buzzwords take on meaning in American society and then are used to shape opinion. As McGee argues, “Ideographs function clearly and evidently as agents of political consciousness.” Essentially, words like “terrorism” reflect our current culture and our political practices. By taking the temperature of the contemporary political climate,

Jim A. Kupers and Matthew T. Althouse put forth an interesting model against which to compare ideographs’ impact on society. They argue that ideographs “are seemingly common, yet emotionally evocative, words from a shared political vocabulary that encourage a community’s actions.” To determine how exactly these actions are motivated, Kuypers and Althouse employ a binary method. By first examining the diachronic orientation, or the ideograph’s evolution over time, one gains a better understanding of how it has taken on its meaning at a given point in time, or its synchronic orientation. By comparing these orientations, it is possible to draw implications for the use of the word and to predict the future use of the word.

Overall it will be interesting to see how different Presidents utilize political rhetoric to bolster political advocacy and popular support. The examination of each President’s use of the rhetoric surrounding terrorism will also provide insightful perspective into foreign policy development. I hope to reveal a clear evolution in the usage of the term terrorism in the year’s immediately before and after the September 11 attacks, and in doing so, provide a framework for understanding the implications of such language.

-Kenzi Green, Smith College

This entry was posted in 2012-2013 General, Campaigns, Communication and Elections, Foreign Affairs and National Security. Bookmark the permalink.

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