Political Tone: How Leaders Talk and Why. By Roderick P. Hart, Jay P. Childers, and Colene J. Lind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 280 pp.
Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
© 2014 Center for the Study of the Presidency
Presidential Studies Quarterly
Special Issue: Symposium on Historical Research
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 190–191, March 2014
How to Cite
Murphy, C. (2014), Political Tone: How Leaders Talk and Why. By Roderick P. Hart, Jay P. Childers, and Colene J. Lind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 280 pp. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 44: 190–191. doi: 10.1111/psq.12103
- Issue published online: 26 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
For a concept as ubiquitous as tone, there is surprisingly little research as it relates to politics. Political Tone fills that void, examining how politicians craft their rhetoric under a variety of different circumstances, why they pick the tone they do, and postulating about the effects of tone on public perceptions.
One of the major contributions of this work is the establishment of myriad “dictionaries” (p. 14) for studying political rhetoric. The authors use the opening part of the book to describe their automated coding method: DICTION. This method deploys user-established dictionaries to code text on any number of dimensions and has been used in research on political rhetoric for many years. The construction of these dictionaries has been explained in greater detail elsewhere. However, Political Tone devotes little time on such explanations, meaning that readers without some background in the area might feel lost in this portion of the book.
Nonetheless, DICTION offers an improvement over the status quo as it allows the authors to draw on a wide swath of theoretical literature to establish “Democratic” and “Republican” tones. Too often research uses what the authors describe as an “atheoretical” (p. 62) approach in which scholars either use reference texts to establish how partisans speak or adopt some of the machine-learning approaches that use a list of words derived from the texts themselves. These lists often fail under close examination by including words that have no theoretical expectation of partisan valence. In this respect, Political Tone provides an important service to the study of political rhetoric by drawing a road map that future scholars would be wise to follow. Chapter 3 builds these dictionaries, and then uses them to explore the use of partisan tone over time and to compare different presidential candidates.
The latter portion of the book shows how the authors are able to apply their approach. Chapter 6, for example, explores the tonal variation President Bill Clinton employed through the impeachment scandal. It shows how in his more impulsive moments, he abandoned his usual measured style—one that was focused on the community—and instead shifted his rhetoric inward to focus on the trials he was facing. The authors do an excellent job of showing how Clinton's rhetorical style changed through different speeches. In doing so, they offer insight into how rhetorical construction helped him not only survive a scandal that could very well have ended his career but remain the most popular politician in the country through the 2000 election.
Chapter 7 offers another good example of the authors' approach in its analysis of the rhetoric of George W. Bush and his use of hortatory tone. The authors ultimately find that Bush was less interested in great rhetoric and hortatory tone than most other presidents, instead preferring short stories with a clear point and easy conclusion. Perhaps the most important part of this chapter demonstrates why automated content analysis is so useful and important to the field. The authors assert that previous scholarship has tended to find a greater use of hortatory tone by Bush than DICTION does, and they attempt to explain why. What they ultimately find is that the excerpts many scholars use are not representative of a typical Bush speech but instead are selected because of their tone. Thus, when DICTION codes the excerpts from top scholarly articles written about the president's rhetoric, it finds a much higher value for hortatory tone than in the larger data set of presidential speeches. This finding ultimately shows the value of a neutral arbiter like DICTION to analyze presidential rhetoric, as opposed to relying on the perceptions of others. Automated coding can clearly help scholars overcome cognitive biases and contribute to a more scientific orientation to the study of rhetoric.
This is not to say that Political Tone is completely divorced from the text; the authors consistently provide excerpts from speeches as a way of demonstrating how politicians create tone. Chapter 8, for instance, studies the use of tone by President Barack Obama on the campaign trail, combining the automated approach with generous speech excerpts. At times, however, the book's reliance on primary texts goes a bit too far. Chapter 5's study of the presidential weekly radio address, for its part, is a bit disjointed, primarily because it largely ignores DICTION and its benefits in favor of excerpts. While the weekly radio address and response have essentially been ignored by the literature (and a systematic study of these speeches would be interesting and useful), here the authors do not use the analytical tools at their disposal in a systematic way.
The only other weakness in this book is a lack of engagement with research on presidential persuasion. If the authors had merely set out to study tone, then including such work would not be necessary. However, the book occasionally pushes the argument into a causal story: change in tone can cause a change in outcome. Any scholarly project seeking to make this kind of point should more closely engage work such as that by George C. Edwards III, who has asserted that rhetoric makes little difference in presidential approval. Still, when taken as research focused on rhetorical construction, Political Tone makes an impact and will definitely be interesting to an academic audience. At the same time, it is generally accessible to undergraduates, journalists, and anyone who is interested in presidential rhetoric.