(Dis)courses of Action: The Role of Language in Policy

– Executive Summary

On January 6, 2021, a group of Americans breached the United States Capitol to prevent a joint session of Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, giving citizens a glimpse of what is possible in a deeply divided nation. Despite being what Time magazine describes as “the most documented crime in U.S. history,” almost two years later, there is still handwringing over what to call the event.[1] Is it a coup, a riot, an insurrection, or something different altogether? The initial intent of this thesis was to determine whether it matters what January 6 is called, leading to the first research question, which asks: How does language influence the understanding and outcomes of sociocultural events? However, it became apparent during the research process that a more pressing concern was what January 6 meant for the country’s future, leading to the second research question: What role does language play in the polarization process? This thesis attempts to answer both questions and demonstrates that events, be they a breach of the U.S. Capitol or extreme polarization of the nation, are best understood through a discursive lens.

This thesis begins by laying out the nature of the polarization problem. Although a certain degree of polarization is expected within a pluralistic democracy, McCoy and Somer describe the present level as “pernicious.”[2] At this stage, polarization is no longer confined to politics and has extended to all aspects of society, resulting in “mutually antagonistic ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ camps.”[3] In other words, as McCoy et al. put it, “partisan identity [has] become a social identity.”[4] As January 6 illustrates, polarization positively correlates with democratic backsliding, posing a severe problem for the country.[5]

Next, this thesis describes the shortcomings of theoretical approaches that place “canonical value” on truth and facts. [6] As Murray Edelman cautioned decades ago, such methods “take for granted a world of facts that have a determinable meaning and a world of people who react rationally to the facts they know.”[7] Instead, it advocates for a social constructionist perspective that challenges common and deeply entrenched beliefs about knowledge, reality, and truth. Considering that polarization is predicated on simple binaries of true and false—right and wrong—social constructionism offers an alternative epistemology that considers there are different “ways of knowing.” [8]

Shifting to discourse, this thesis suggests that language is never neutral. Instead, as Schiappa puts it, language represents a particular view of how “the world ‘really is.’”[9] That is, while an unbounded world exists “out there,” language is inherently limiting, highlighting specific features of reality while obscuring others. While many linguistic elements contribute to the framing effect of language, definitions, metaphors, and identity are most prevalent throughout the literature. Combined, they form a rudimentary framework for discourse analysis, which this research utilizes throughout the rest of this thesis.

Analysis begins with the discourse of the Civil War, which left 750,000 Americans dead at each other’s’ hands.[10] Despite slavery being “somehow, the cause of the war,” as Lincoln puts it, analysis of the discourse reveals a process of division relying more on rhetoric than objective differences.[11] As Edward Ayers writes, “The ‘North’ and the ‘South’ took shape in words before they were unified by armies and shared sacrifice.”[12] As this analysis suggests, definitions, metaphors, and identity are integral to the polarization process and influential in the outcome and understanding of the war.

This thesis continues by analyzing the discourse of 9/11 to determine how language led the country to embark on a Global War on Terror (GWOT). At the time, for many Americans, the path from a terrorist attack to war seemed self-evident. However, the speeches of political leaders reveal that the “war on terror” that has left nearly a million dead and cost the United States more than 8 trillion dollars was not inevitable.[13] Like the Civil War, the language chosen by the nation’s leaders influenced its outcome. And, although less evident than in the previous case, it too involved a process of division that pitted “innocent” Americans against “a cult of evil” using the same rhetorical devices.[14] When juxtaposed, these events suggest that the language of division is consistent, whether an enemy is internal or external, and that unity and division are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, after synthesizing the findings of the previous analyses, this thesis returns to the present. Through the same discursive lens, it examines the current political rhetoric. It finds that today’s discourse is strikingly similar to the previous events, suggesting that the nation is on a dangerous path. This thesis concludes by describing how definitions, metaphors, and identities can be part of a strategy to decrease polarization by transforming discourse. Suggestions include pragmatic definitions, which consider the persuasive effects of definitions; generative metaphors, which enable different ways of “seeing” a problem; and adding complexity to identities to prevent the simple binaries that underlie polarization.


[1] Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan, “The Capitol Attack Was the Most Documented Crime in History. Will That Ensure Justice?,” Time, April 9, 2021, https://time.com/5953486/january-capitol-attack-investigation/.

[2] Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer, “Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies: Comparative Evidence and Possible Remedies,” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681, no. 1 (January 2019): 234, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716218818782.

[3] Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, “Transformations through Polarizations and Global Threats to Democracy,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): 9, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716218818058.

[4] Jennifer McCoy et al., Reducing Pernicious Polarization: A Comparative Historical Analysis of Depolarization (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022), https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/05/05/reducing-pernicious-polarization-comparative-historical-analysis-of-depolarization-pub-87034.

[5] McCoy et al.

[6] Jerome S. Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 110.

[7] Murray J. Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 1.

[8] Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 11.

[9] Edward Schiappa, Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 37.

[10] Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” New York Times, April 2, 2012, sec. Science, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html.

[11] Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 8., ed. Roy P. Basler (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), 333, http://name.umdl.umich.edu/lincoln8.

[12] Edward L. Ayers, “What Caused the Civil War?,” North & South 8, no. 5 (September 2005): 16, https://scholarship.richmond.edu/history-faculty-publications/132/.

[13] Neta C. Crawford, The U.S. Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars (Providence, RI: Watson Institute, Brown University, 2021), https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2021/Costs%20of%20War_U.S.%20Budgetary%20Costs%20of%20Post-9%2011%20Wars_9.1.21.pdf.

[14] George W. Bush, Selected Speeches of President George W. Bush 2001 – 2008 (Washington, DC: White House, 2009), 80, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/bushrecord/documents/Selected_Speeches_George_W_Bush.pdf.

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