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Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television

How Americans Challenged the Media and Seized Political Initiative during the Iran-Contra Debate

An inspired, original argument about the nature of democracy in American society, Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television explores a political process out of touch with everyday needs and concerns of citizens. Instead of focusing on polls and election results, historian David Thelen listens to Americans through their calls and letters to congressmen in which citizens define for themselves the issues they want to raise and the ways they want to be seen and heard.

Thelen argues that the self-referential world of politics and journalism during elections excludes the concerns and voices of Americans, resulting in lower voter turnouts and increased voter apathy. Televised hearings and trials, however—from O. J. Simpson to Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas to Oliver North and Iran-Contra—have ignited storms of controversy and public debate. Focusing upon the spontaneous, unmediated reactions of American citizens to these events, Thelen discovers a new kind of political participation in which Americans shape their interventions.

Through an analysis of a remarkable documentary collection—the correspondence sent by citizens to the House Select Committee on Iran-Contra in the wake of the Oliver North testimony—Thelen explains how Americans are reclaiming the political process. Examining more than 5,000 letters and telegrams, Thelen uncovers the anger and resolve of a vocal public insulted by the media and opinion-managers who have misrepresented them as mindless supporters of "Olliemania."

Concluding with suggestions on how citizens can reclaim their voice from the opinion managing industries, this work promises to provoke the kind of public discourse on which democracy depends.

258 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 1996

Political Science: American Government and Politics

Rhetoric and Communication

Table of Contents

1: The Participatory Moment
2: "Reagan’s Magic" and "Olliemania": How Journalists Invented the American People
3: The Living Traditions of Citizenship: From Monitoring to Mobilizing in the Summer of 1987
4: Turning the Intimate into the Public: The Participatory Act of Writing a Congressman
5: Choosing a Voice and Making It Count
6: Interpreting Politics in Everyday Life
7: Bringing Critical Issues into the Public Forum: Policing the World and Defining Heroism
8: Making Citizens Visible: Toward a Social History of Twentieth-Century American Politics
Conclusion: Drawing Politics Closer to Everyday Life
Note on Sources and Method

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