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Campaign Rhetoric Complicating Issues in Critical Presidential Election Year

October 12, 2016

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Turning Up The Volume: Campaign rhetoric in 2016 has reached modern-day lows, according to English professor Anne Watt, who has been studying the issue since 2004.

Political science professor Terrence Casey and English professor Anne Watt are bringing clear and distinctive perspectives to help Rose-Hulman students understand the complexities of this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Members of Casey’s American Politics and Government and Watt’s Presidential Election Rhetoric classes have come together this fall for their own mini version of the election, complete with political ads, consultants, news media, candidate debates, and voting.

“We may be witnessing a critical election—one where the electoral fabric underlying the Democrat and Republican parties changes for generations,” says Casey, who is also head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. “The turmoil is most apparent on the Republican side, where the party has split into three groups—Donald Trump supporters, Tea Party conservatives, and the establishment GOP. It’s hard to know how this will shake out.”

Casey notes, “We are trying to analyze an earthquake while it’s happening.”

“Donald Trump’s ideology is primarily about Donald Trump,” the political science professor says. “Trump’s message is trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

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Critical Issues: Political science professor Terrence Casey says students are witnessing a presidential election with several keys issues that will have long-range implications on their future.

Other takeaways from Casey about the 2016 presidential election include:

  • Trump represents something unprecedented in American politics: a candidate in the tradition of Latin American populist strongmen such as the late Juan Peron of Argentina.
  • The most striking change of 2016 is sudden death of the country’s 50-year commitment to free trade. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, who tried to win the Democratic nomination, attracted widespread support through their opposition to free trade. “People aren’t adjusting to globalization as well as hoped.”
  • “Immigration is the big motivating issue” for many voters.
  • “Hillary Clinton’s biggest challenge is Hillary Clinton.” She is an establishment candidate in an anti-establishment moment in history.

Meanwhile, campaign rhetoric in 2016 has reached modern-day lows, according to Watt, who has been studying presidential campaign rhetoric since 2004.

“Things that used to be off limits, just aren’t off limits anymore,” she says, adding that a popular backlash against political correctness and the prominence of social media have fueled a desire among some candidates to be shocking to get attention.

Watt is widely quoted about political rhetoric issues, including being featured in the new book Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech.