By Dominika Econa
A good argument in a discussion is like the first edition of a rare book: priceless. The art of deliberation was advocated by Aristotle through the discipline of rhetoric and emphasized more recently by Fairclough and Fairclough in the theory of political discourse analysis (2012).
In the current political environment, rich rhetoric seems to lose out to shorter forms of speech, such as tweets. Nonetheless it exists in the narrative of the two main political parties, the Democratic and the Republican.
These parties were the subject of S-CAR’s Fall 2018 “Engaging Conflict” class (CONF 625) with Professor Sara Cobb, which focused on a narrative discourse analysis of the much-contested rhetoric around the U.S. political landscape during the recent midterm election cycle, with a specific focus on intra-party conflict. CONF 625 is one of the core classes in the S-CAR master’s program, and it requires every student at S-CAR to “engage in conflict” in different environments, not necessarily domestic, and not always political.
However, the focus and timing of Professor Cobb’s syllabus made it possible for us to capture the pre- and post- election period in the U.S. To do so, first we designed a pre-election survey that gave us a general picture of the political attitudes in the country. Then, we conducted focus groups and interviews, asking people about their specific stories and their attitudes. Soon after, we organized an open-to-the-public World Café event, where we further explored political divisions in our public sphere. At the end, we gathered our findings in a presentation that was filmed by our instructor. It is available online through the S-CAR YouTube channel.
The coursework was an ambitious undertaking. We attempted to move across narrative landscapes of action and emotion to increase our understanding of “fissures and fault lines” within the political parties. The survey and interviews, as well as focus groups with family members, peers, and colleagues, helped us understand how people affiliate on the political spectrum, what it is that draws them nearer to one side, and why.
The intra-party criticism we elicited during our research from within each side of the political spectrum gave us hope for a potential recipe for the closest thing to a cure against the disease of a polarized society. Such attempts at criticism reconnect people with the notion of a civic sphere through the process of real deliberation. It could potentially ease people into openly, yet perceptively, talking about political issues.
In the United States, the Left and the Right still give shape to political attitudes. However, it is at the level of the individual where we attempted to find answers about the current political conflict in the country. Our class undertaking was to “deconstruct” and observe more closely those individual voices that constitute the narrative of the Liberals and the Conservatives.
Looking back, it was an ambitious course that, in my opinion, reached the full range of possibilities on the academic and conflict resolution scale, from designing the methodology and administering the survey to conducting focus groups and presenting research results. Together with a captivating course reading list, it created an atmosphere of both intellectual pursuit and first-hand learning about conflict.
Professor Cobb’s approaches to narrative analysis provided us with a rare opportunity to explore the U.S. election process, as it was unfolding in real time, through an academic lens that allowed for intelligent political dialogue with our fellow graduate students as well as the general public. When a dedicated professor leads students, the outcome is more than a sum of ideas put together. All become creators and influencers!
Fairclough, Isabela & Norman Fairclough. “Political Discourse Analysis. A Method for Advanced Students.” N. pag. Web. 2012. (London: Routledge).
The author would like to thank Audrey Williams for her editorial support during the drafting of this piece and Karen Werner for her contribution of initial editorial support of and discussion around the content of this article.