Political rhetoric, or propaganda, is defined as the manipulation of the symbols which constitute a social utopia or political myth in order to influence public opinion. The political symbols themselves are not propaganda, but their manipulation (if the intended effect is to change public opinions on matters about which there is disagreement) is just that. Propaganda cannot create opinions (consensuses) out of the whole cloth. They must be supported by and supportive of the society`s political myth. Thus propaganda can only alter the power structure in ways the members of that structure are already disposed to allow; and where a power configuration exist, the intended effect of the manipulation of political symbols is most likely to reinforce the change and transformation proposal of those exercising political and social power.
The immediate implication of all this in terms of communication theory is that a profound political myth forms the basis for a good deal of the cognitive similarity necessary in a political community for political communication; that is for the transmission of meaning. If this is so, it is possible that political communication uses language not always for the purpose of reasoned argument, but for providing Pavlovian cues for the interpretation of meaning. It is possible that meaning is transmitted in political language not by structured or logical political arguments, but by psycho-logical sequences of symbols which are interpreted from the perspective of a given individual`s belief system and the dominant political myth which organizes them into meaningful relationships. Political argument, when it is effective, that is, when it is a communication that influences voting behavior, calls attention of a group with shared interests to those aspects of their situation which make an argued-for line of action seem consistent with furthering of their interests.
The more clear is the core platform of a given ideology, the stronger its pedagogical capacity for influencing individual political behavior. If we apply some of this reasoning to the call for political debates, one can make the strong point that debates don`t drastically change political behaviors. If any, the effects of debates are linked simply of making it possible for many people to reinforce an image of, or re-attach a meaning to, the candidates on the basis of the viewers own predisposition. The problem is for new political candidates, because existing ones have already presented themselves symbolically in such a way that those predisposed to sympathize can create an image of them compatible with the people.
Exercising behavioral influence through the manipulation of political symbols is not a process of leading the masses by the nose. Political or individual influence through communication processes has some limits. These limits are defined by the existing political myth, by the extent to which this myth is shared by the members of the society, and by the cognitive structure or belief systems of particular individuals.
Reflections of this kind have to be present when designing and implementing a profound political strategy.
Copyright 1998 QBS, Inc.