Associate 2004-05

Scott Althaus

Speech Comm


Professor Althaus’s research centers on the communication processes by which ordinary citizens become (in theory, at least) empowered to exercise popular sovereignty in democratic societies, as well as on the communication processes by which the opinions of these citizens are conveyed to government officials, who (in theory, at least) must transform the will of the people into political action.

To better understand how these two types of communication are related to one another, he will be studying the processes of media-constructed public deliberation that occurred in the months leading up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, over the merits of going to war with Iraq. The support of a nation’s citizens in time of war is a crucial foundation for the effective use of military force against another nation, and the will of a nation should constrain the actions of its political representatives. Yet when one nation is considering war against another, leaders often regard the opinions of citizens as a potential obstacle to military action that must be shaped and molded, rather than as an independent voice reflecting something like the “will of the people.” But are “the people” really so malleable as these leaders seem often to presume; and is public opinion really just a reflection of the contours of elite debate, as many leaders and social scientists seem to believe?

Professor Althaus’s project will examine the relative power over the public deliberation process exercised by three sets of actors: the power of decision makers in the executive branch to construct a mediated policy discourse that supports the case for going to war; the power of journalists to construct an open, diverse, and thoroughgoing policy discourse that represents the voices of all relevant parties in the debate; and the power of American public opinion to influence the behavior of both decision makers and journalists. A clearer understanding of the relationships among these actors is critical not only for clarifying the proper roles of representatives and citizens in times of national crisis but, more importantly, for understanding the extent to which public support for war can be manufactured or manipulated by political leaders. The ultimate result of this project will be a book manuscript about public deliberation processes in democratic societies.