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Political Tone

How Leaders Talk and Why

It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Solving problems with words is the essence of politics, and finding the right words for the moment can make or break a politician’s career. Yet very little has been said in political science about the elusive element of tone.

In Political Tone, Roderick P. Hart, Jay P. Childers, and Colene J. Lind analyze a range of texts—from speeches and debates to advertising and print and broadcast campaign coverage— using a sophisticated computer program, DICTION, that parses their content for semantic features like realism, commonality, and certainty, as well as references to religion, party, or patriotic terms. Beginning with a look at how societal forces like diversity and modernity manifest themselves as political tones in the contexts of particular leaders and events, the authors proceed to consider how individual leaders have used tone to convey their messages: How did Bill Clinton’s clever dexterity help him recover from the Monica Lewinsky scandal? How did Barack Obama draw on his experience as a talented community activist to overcome his inexperience as a national leader? And how does Sarah Palin’s wandering tone indicate that she trusts her listeners and is open to their ideas?

By focusing not on the substance of political arguments but on how they were phrased, Political Tone provides powerful and unexpected insights into American politics.

304 pages | 53 line drawings, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Media Studies

Rhetoric and Communication


Political Tone is a novel, masterly, and beautifully written examination of the American political landscape with attention to the campaign rhetoric of every presidential campaign from 1948 to the present. The authors have carefully marshaled a wealth of data to reveal patterns—some strikingly counterintuitive—in the political communication environment over the last six decades. A marvelous undertaking.”

Katherine Cramer Walsh, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Fascinating and important, Political Tone offers a word-based journey through political time, space, and personality. It shows why tone belongs with framing and agenda-setting at the core of political communication research and why tone trumps word manipulation as a strategic tool. This book is a must-read for practitioners and students alike.”

Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard University

Political Tone is an original, engaging, and provocative exploration of a rhetorical element that belongs in the canon of every serious student of contemporary discourse.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania

“Political tone is a concept that is central to the study of political communication, but we have applied this concept without a thorough appreciation of its nuanced complexity. Hart, Childers, and Lind have filled this void by authoring a richly descriptive analysis of political tone. Just as their book reveals the many complexities of political tone, it also raises numerous questions for future research to investigate. . . . An important addition to political communication scholarship, one that is not limited to a single approach but should appeal to scholars who study politics from a political science, rhetoric, or communications point of view. . . . It—and works like it—can inspire future research to blend the contributions of these diverse yet necessarily interrelated fields of politics even beyond the core set of compelling findings this volume offers.”

Political Communication

“Hart, Childers, and Lind have analyzed approximately 30,000 texts from politicians, journalists, and citizens, focusing on discourse about presidents and presidential elections. An impressive and thought-provoking book that is a very pleasant read. Recommended.”


"For a concept as ubiquitous as tone, there is surprisingly little research as it relates to politics. Political Tone fills that void, examining how politicians craft their rhetoric under a variety of different circumstances, why they pick the tone they do, and postulating about the effects of tone on public perceptions. . . . Political Tone makes an impact and will definitely be interesting to an academic audience. At the same time, it is generally accessible to undergraduates, journalists, and anyone who is interested in presidential rhetoric."

Presidential Studies Quarterly

“A snappy new book exploring the value and importance of rhetorical tone. . . . Hart, Childers, and Lind deconstruct, and then reassemble, our collective picture of why we should care about what politicians say. . . . The findings from the book are vast and informative. . . . A welcome addition to the literature and especially valuable in explaining the tonal dimensionality of modern leadership.”

Congress and the Presidency

“This is an important book. Hart and his coauthors have extended a long line of research that focuses on presidential style. Starting with Verbal Style and the Presidency and including his masterful The Sound of Leadership and Campaign Talk, Hart has led the way in computer-assisted analysis of presidential discourse. In this latest book, the authors turn to the matter of tone. . . . Even scholars who work at the opposite end of the methodological spectrum can learn from this book.”

Political Science Quarterly

 “For more than four decades, Hart has successfully accomplished what so many try and fail to do: He has stood astride the dynamic gulf separating humanistic and social scientific approaches to the study of leadership and communication. . . . [Political Tone] provides careful, compelling evidence concerning the role that tone plays in political discourse and learning, and contributes new and valuable knowledge to several areas of research in American politics, including but not limited to political parties, media, political knowledge, and our most recent presidents. Because of this, Political Tone will be of interest not only to scholars toiling in the relevant interdisciplinary fields but also to faculty and students alike interested in those subjects, as well as in political communication and leadership more broadly.”

Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents

PART I. Understanding Language

CHAPTER 1.  The Mysteries of Political Tone

PART II. Societal Forces

CHAPTER 2.  Diversity and the Accommodating Tone
CHAPTER 3.  Partisanship and the Balanced Tone
CHAPTER 4.  Modernity and the Urgent Tone
CHAPTER 5.  Institutions and the Assertive Tone

PART III. Personal Forces

CHAPTER 6.  Scandal and the Resilient Tone
CHAPTER 7.  Complexity and the Measured Tone
CHAPTER 8.  Inexperience and the Neighborly Tone
CHAPTER 9.  Ambition and the Wandering Tone

PART IV. Beyond Language

CHAPTER 10.  The Possibilities of Political Tone


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