The Dynamics of Political Communication
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The Dynamics of Political Communication

Media and Politics in a Digital Age

Richard M. Perloff

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eBook - ePub

The Dynamics of Political Communication

Media and Politics in a Digital Age

Richard M. Perloff

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About This Book

The third edition of The Dynamics of Political Communication continues its comprehensive coverage of communication and politics, focusing on problematic issues that bear on the functioning of democracy in an age of partisanship, social media, and political leadership that questions media's legitimacy.

The book covers the intersections between politics and communication, calling on related social science disciplines as well as normative political philosophy. This new edition is thoroughly updated and includes a survey of the contemporary political communication environment, unpacking fake news, presidential communication, hostile media bias, concerns about the waning of democracy, partisan polarization, political advertising and marketing, the relationship between social media and the news media, and the 2020 election, all the while drawing on leading new scholarship in these areas.

It's ideally suited for upper-level undergraduate and graduate political communication courses in communication, journalism, and political science programs.

This edition again features online resources with links to examples of political communication in action, such as videos, news articles, tweets, and press releases. For instructors, an instructor's manual, lecture slides, and test questions are also provided. Access the support material at

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One of the verities of political communication—a centerpiece of democracy in the best of times, a symptom of its roiling polarities in the worst of times—is change. By the time you read this book charting the dynamics of political communication, the world will have changed since I described its contours, working at my laptop, viewing news of the endless devastation wrought by the pandemic, bruising presidential campaign ads, and the tumultuous finale of the 2020 election, marked by a mob of pro-Trump rioters ransacking the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote. The events of the past 4 years are a testament to change, with one unbelievable series of events replaced by another and then another, in a reverberation of head-spinning chaotic gyrations.
It began back in 2016 with the astonishing electoral victory of Donald Trump, followed by allegations, then proof of Russian interference in the election; repeated denunciations of fake news disseminated by Trump that conveniently exempted Fox News from the list; his firing of an FBI director who challenged him; Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible linkages between the Trump campaign and Russian electoral interference, the ways that was spun and framed by different partisan groups; Trump’s vitriolic tweets; the much-discussed tax cuts Congress passed that improved the economy, some parts more than others; domestic terrorism at a Pittsburgh synagogue primed by extremist, conspiracy theory social media commentaries; a Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House, his subsequent acquittal by the Senate, all covered carefully by the news, sometimes with a partisan spin; followed not long after by the coronavirus pandemic, with its beginning in China, a source of controversy along with Trump’s rhetoric, then the multitude of deaths during a spring of sadness, culminating in national protests over a police killing, public opinion shifts, and symbolic changes; a national campaign waged with vigor and venom, and the contentious outcome of a presidential election. It continued into 2021, with the violent insurrection of the Capitol by hundreds of violent extremists, delusional in their belief the election was unfair, willing to interrupt the official congressional certification of a fair, democratic presidential election. With about a week left in Trump’s presidency, the House of Representatives, furious that Trump had incited the rioters’ siege of a democratic ritual, proceeded with an unprecedented second impeachment proceedings, leading to Trump’s impeachment, followed again by Senate acquittal.
It was the old Billy Joel history song (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”) on steroids, played at warp speed. But as you read this, new tumult has overtaken the turmoil of yore, raising questions about whether the once-vibrant American experiment can maintain its vitality or is creaking toward dissolution. For all the strengths of American democracy—its capacity to renew itself, checks and balances, an unbridled free press—dysfunctions are apparent everywhere. For example: politics gamed by the rich, majority sentiments ignored or silenced due to structural flaws, social media awash in misinformation.
This is the backdrop for the issues discussed in this book. It’s certainly not an inviting beginning—no metaphorical promise of chocolate or basks in the sun. And it noticeably minimizes the positive influences that political communication can achieve, as well as the passion many young people felt as they protested racial injustice in the spring of 2020. But the negative attracts outsize attention psychologically, has become the dominant way most people view the political world, and therefore commands attention. Let’s begin then with the catalogue of complaints that frequently greet political communication, as this provides a familiar way to enter the political communication territory, while offering a pathway to critiquing these very shortcomings, in this manner opening up the discussion to broader, cross-disciplinary, and socially significant issues.

The Disturbing Political Communication Environment

Table 1.1 lists seven problems that characterize our once-promising, now disruptive political media ecology. The problems go beyond communication to encompass structural aspects of American society. But political communication always exists in a broader social fabric, so it’s important to examine these factors, including those that examine systemic issues involving American society.
Table 1.1 Contemporary conundrums in American politics and political communication.
1. Racial injustice and civil unrest continue to roil America.
2. Fake news has proliferated, even as questions remain about its effects.
3. Ideological media sites have multiplied, politicizing the truth.
4. The American political environment is more divisive and partisan than in recent years.
5. Populism and distrust have become woven into the texture of contemporary political communication.
6. Politics is mean and uncivil.
7. Systemic problems illuminated by the coronavirus pandemic demand political solutions.

1. Racial Injustice and Civil Unrest Continue to Roil American Politics

It was a jarring split-screen tableau. A day after Georgia—long a bastion of red-state conservatism—turned blue, electing two Democrats, including a young Jewish filmmaker and Georgia’s first Black senator, a mob of pro-Trump, paramilitary violent vigilantes stormed the U.S. Capitol, brandishing Confederate flags and wearing anti-Semitic T-shirts. The parade of falsehoods and conspiracy theory dogma that dominated their online outlets contrasted sharply with the outpouring of criticism that flooded conventional news channels, consumed by concerns about the anti-democratic insurgency that gripped the Capitol on January 6, 2021. It illustrated the continuity of national civic unrest, but also “the nation’s original paradox: a commitment to democracy in a country with a legacy of racial exclusion” (Herndon, 2021).
Just 6 months earlier, racial issues had jumped to center stage, with images of police violence against African Americans; massive protests against police shootings; looting, vandalism, and property damage wrought by angry mobs; and counter-demonstrators vowing to protect a city from protesters. Such was the situation that unfolded in America during the throes of a pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, the distinguished American academic, famously said that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” His prophetic statement remains true more than a century after he penned it. As a result of institutional racism and systematic political indifference to the problems plaguing Black communities, scalding racial disparities remain. The net worth of a White family is about 10 times greater than that of a typical Black family, a gap that has significantly widened over the years, abetted by continuing subtle discrimination in employer hiring practices (McIntosh et al., 2020; Luo, 2009). Blacks attend less economically resourced schools than Whites and Asian Americans, contributing to economic discrepancies that perpetuate disparities in wealth and home ownership (Kristof, 2016; Bouie, 2020). African American college graduates have fewer financial assets than Whites who did not complete high school (Hannah-Jones, 2020). Health disparities are particularly grievous as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic lung illnesses are more common among African Americans, contributing to a lower life expectancy among Blacks (Villarosa, 2020).
These problems aren’t new, but they took on particular resonance in 2020 when the political communication environment changed in the blink of a viral moment. A nation reeling from a pandemic, rankled by partisan divisions, and beset by Depression-level unemployment found itself in the throes of violent civil unrest. Within days after a White Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an African American man in police custody, by pressing his knee to the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, protests broke out from coast to coast.
The video of the incident went viral, outraging Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, stirring tens of millions to protest to express their anger that yet another unarmed Black person had been killed by a White police officer (Williams, 2016; Chan, 2020; see Figure 1.1). Other videos of police aggression sparked anger, but the Floyd video was more impactful because the violence was spectacularly graphic, and it coincided with the recent deaths of other innocent Black Americans, also under police custody, including Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks of Georgia, Elijah McClain of Colorado, and Breonna Taylor of Kentucky. In addition, the video reached a wider audience, in view of high unemployment and the number of people isolated in their homes. It also stirred the passions of African Americans and young people from different racial groups, sympathetic with the positions articulated by Black Lives Matter, fuming about the striking racial disparities in deaths from the coronavirus, and hungering for an opportunity to translate frustrations into tangible action. Over the course of the spring, the nation experienced one of the largest protest movements in American history, as some 23 million people took part in demonstrations (Chan, 2020).
People protest the brutal police killing of George Floyd in 2020 in a city, with their arms outstretched.
The impact of the video and impassioned conversations on social media, complemented by days of ceaseless news coverage, serves as a testament to the power of political communication. It also showcases the intersection between political media and the social circumstances in which media effects occur.
News covered the racial issue, framing it in different ways, depending on the news outlet’s journalistic and political perspective. Social media was on fire, as videos and tweets circulated, people shared passi...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Dynamics of Political Communication
APA 6 Citation
Perloff, R. (2021). The Dynamics of Political Communication (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Perloff, Richard. (2021) 2021. The Dynamics of Political Communication. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Perloff, R. (2021) The Dynamics of Political Communication. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Perloff, Richard. The Dynamics of Political Communication. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.