Communication and Politics

By Tom Burke

(Word Count = 621)

Both George Washington and Barrack Obama used political speech to secure their respective elections.  However, the form and audience of political communication has greatly changed in recent centuries.  During the founding of the United States, political speech was either delivered in person to a live and relatively small audience or published in newspapers.  A politician’s audience consisted of the propertied and educated elite as political debates were frequently conducted behind closed doors.  It was not until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that political speech was successfully aimed at the general public.  Events in the 1830s also helped to increase the scope and scale of political communication.  “First, the property qualifications for the right to vote were dropped, expanding the electorate to all white men.  Second, the United States was beginning to industrialize, migration to large urban centers was accelerating, and literacy rates were climbing” (155).  Improvements in printing technology also allowed newspapers to cut costs and vastly increase circulation.  Not only did this amplify a politician’s voice, but it allowed newspapers to achieve financial independence which, in turn, allowed them to be politically independent as well.  The press’ shift from (at least professed) political neutrality to (at times, blatant) partisanship can be readily ascertained by tuning into today’s Fox News or MSNBC cable networks, which clearly expound conservative and liberal viewpoints on the whole, respectively.

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The advent of the telegraph followed by that of radio, television, and finally the Internet immensely changed a politician’s communication with the general public.  For instance, FDR took full advantage of the radio by using his “Fireside Chats” to inspire hope, quell fears, and establish a more personal relationship with the American public during WWII.  His tactic was most effective because “For the first time, thousands and then millions of people could actually hear a candidate’s voice” (157).  Barrack Obama, presumably cognizant of the media’s power to influence voters, used social media to help secure his infamous 2008 presidential election over John McCain.  In order to see the massive differential of “social media savviness” between candidates, it is helpful to consult some statistics.  Obama outmatched McCain in numerous categories including Youtube Video’s Posted (1,819 to 330)Facebook Wall Posts (495,320 to 132,802), and MySpace Comments (147,630 to None Listed).  A visual representation of these differentials and more can be viewed at slideshare.net.

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Why was Obama’s social media presence integral to winning him the presidency?  Well, as with radio, the Internet allows a politician to establish a more personal relationship with his or her constituents.  Yet, this updated version of FDR’s “Fireside Chats” has many advantages.  Rather than simply hearing a candidates voice, potential voters can see the candidate in action.    While a candidate’s stance on issues is surely weighed by voters, recent evidence suggests that voters are swayed by a candidate to the extent to which they can self-identify with a candidate.  Next to speaking with the candidate in person, streaming interviews and speeches online is the best way to get a sense of a candidate’s personality.  The Internet also allows potential voters a forum to actively participate in discussions at any time, rather than having to passively listen to political speech.  Furthermore, unlike the radio or television, Internet broadcasts do not have to be streamlined for a general audience, and therefore, can incorporate far more political material.  Finally, as blogs and videos may be uploaded for free, candidates are now able to expound their views without having to incur severe financial burden.

There have been immense changes to political communication since the birth of the United States and, for better or for worse, it seems that the American public will encounter their candidates virtually instead of through the radio or printed word.

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