About Ann Burnette, Ph.D.: Ann Burnette is an Associate Professor at Texas State University’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in American speech and public discourse, rhetorical criticism, and political communication. Dr. Burnette is the recipient of the 2016 John I. Sisco Excellence in Teaching Award, as well as the 2015 Texas State University Presidential Award of Excellence.
She has also won accolades for her research, including the 2014 Southern States Communication Association James Madison Prize for Outstanding Research in First Amendment Studies for her article, “Reframing Corporations as Individuals: The ‘Persuasive Marvels’ Unleashed by the Citizens United Ruling,” which she co-authored with Dr. Rebekah Fox. In addition, she has published articles on gendered discourse in politics, presidential communication, campaign rhetoric and media analysis, and individual vs. institutional messaging and the ethics around it.
Dr. Burnette earned her Bachelor of Arts in History and her Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Virginia. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Northwestern University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How did you first become interested in researching political communication, political campaign rhetoric, American public address, and rhetorical criticism? How did your areas of interest and scholarship evolve over time, from your baccalaureate degree to your Ph.D. and beyond?
[Dr. Burnette] I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, so I’ve always had an interest in politics–I grew up with it. I went to the University of Virginia and I was a history major there, and I loved thinking about, reading about, and talking about American history. And two things happened that made me interested in communication. One was a class that I took in my senior year that was called Modes of Rhetorical Inquiry. It was essentially an overview of rhetorical theory and it was not like anything I’d ever studied. It was taught by James Aune, and I remember sitting in the class and thinking, “I want to know this stuff!” We were talking about everything from Aristotle to Marx to Foucault, and it was just very exciting for me.
It was too late to change my major, as I was getting ready to graduate, but based on my excitement in that class, I applied to the Rhetoric and Communication Studies Department for a master’s degree. Professor James Aune was in that department, as were a number of other really outstanding communication faculty. So I came to communication through a bit of a byway.
The other thing that happened as an undergraduate that piqued my interest in communication and made it seem like something that I would like to study, and which would complement my interest in American history, was my undergraduate history thesis. The way that the undergraduate history thesis worked at the University of Virginia was that you signed up for a class on a topic that interested you, and would complete your thesis on the topic of that class. The topic for my class was a utopian community called Fairhope that was founded in Fairhope, Alabama. The professor of that class was Paul Gaston and he was an historian who had grown up in Fairhope, within that utopian community. He gave us access to a lot of the foundational documents of Fairhope. It was absolutely fascinating to me to read these documents that talked about what kind of a community they wanted and how they were going to organize and structure their economic practices and their legislative practices and their self-governance. It was an ideal laboratory in which to observe the effect that that kind of communication, that kind of rhetoric, has on the society or the culture that it is trying to impact.
So with that experience and this new interest in rhetorical theory, I did a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Virginia. And there I also did work with primary documents we had at the University of Virginia library from James J. Kilpatrick.
James J. Kilpatrick lived for most of the twentieth century and was an editor of the Richmond New Dispatch. He wrote a series of books and a series of editorials in the 1950s and the 1960s supporting school segregation in Virginia. He was against the desegregation ruling that was handed down by the Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Kilpatrick made a series of arguments that were based on states’ rights. He said his disagreement with the ruling wasn’t with the racial integration, but rather the states’ rights implication of the Supreme Court setting educational policy. It was exciting to have access to those primary documents. And with that, I decided I wanted to pursue this kind of argumentation and rhetoric further. So I applied to and was accepted to Northwestern University where I continued my studies at the intersection of history and public address and political discourse.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2014 you won the Southern States Communication Association James Madison Prize for Outstanding Research in First Amendment Studies for a research article you co-authored with Dr. Rebekah Fox, entitled “Reframing Corporations as Individuals: The ‘Persuasive Marvels’ Unleashed by the Citizens United Ruling.” Could you elaborate on this research project and the impact it has had on the field of political communication studies?
[Dr. Burnette] I believe that rhetoric shapes our reality. And I believe that political rhetoric shapes our political understanding of what our society is. The Citizens United ruling was very interesting to me and to Dr. Fox, because it sought to redefine the nature of who gets to participate in political discourse with full First Amendment rights. It ruled that corporations have many of the same first amendment rights that individual citizens do and, to Dr. Fox and me, that seemed like a bold claim. So we specifically looked at the way that people tried to frame that decision and their understanding of that decision after it was handed down.
A lot of it turned on that tension between how we define ourselves as individuals and how we define ourselves as members of collectives, whether those are communities or corporations or institutions. That project was noteworthy because what we found is that people who wanted to have a greater degree of separation between the individual identity and the collective identity were more likely to see the Citizens ruling as an invitation for an unprecedented amount of corporate money in politics.
And I would argue that that has been the result–that we now have more corporate money in politics in ways that are difficult to trace. And that, in my view, poses a problem because corporations don’t have the same degree of transparency or accountability that individuals do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your essay “Communicating a Rationale for War: George W. Bush and the Rhetoric of Imperial Righteousness,” which was co-published with Wayne Kraemer, is a significant work that examines the rhetoric of President George W. Bush’s administration, and which has been cited by prominent historical publications. May we have more information on the thesis of this article, including the types of presidential rhetoric you found the Bush administration utilized and their impact?
[Dr. Burnette] The work that Wayne Kraemer and I have done on the rhetoric of George W. Bush has been a fascinating project and it has evolved. We were particularly interested in his way of framing foreign policy, because we saw a development in that area over time. We started with the framework of Robert Friedman who talked about militant decency. He argued that through the early part of the twentieth century, American presidents sought to promote the idea that America was a country of militant decency. That we are a power in the world but we are upholding certain values and that is what makes it all right that we do what we do. And Mr. Kraemer and I extended that framework because when we were looking at President Bush’s rhetoric, what we found was that he pushed that envelope.
So we noted that, rather than making the argument that we should be a power in the world because we’re upholding these values, President Bush’s rhetoric of militant righteousness gave him license to engage in preemptive military action. Bush’s justification wasn’t just that we were a decent global citizen who could use our power to settle any kind of dispute. Now we were a world power that was entitled to use our judgment to not only address wrongs where we might see wrongs, but also forestall any kind of problem or conflict before it started. We see that very much in the rhetoric after 9/11.
What we found President Bush did was he used the justified and righteous anger and fear of the American people to extend our military response beyond the immediate cause of 9/11. And I think it’s another instance where rhetoric creates our reality, because those arguments about how we had to be alert had such an impact on the collective American psyche and sense of reality. The idea that we could no longer rely on our oceans to protect us cast the public debate about our role in the global arena in a different light. And as a result, we very aggressive in going into various countries to try to root out the people whom we thought were terrorists or who were supporting terrorism.
The work that Kraemer and I have done has appeared in communication scholarship outlets as well as broader outlets. The essay mentioned previously, regarding George W. Bush’s presidential rhetoric, was part of a collection of studies from scholars who were looking back on the George W. Bush administration. They included pieces written by historians, political scientists, and journalists. That was an exciting opportunity, being involved with that project, because it started with a conference where we presented that paper and then that paper got included in the book that came from the conference. At that conference, we were able to speak to many different folks who had different areas of expertise and were talking about different aspects of the Bush administration.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You also recently co-authored another article with Dr. Fox entitled “War stories: Trump’s narratives and the freedom of the press.” What are your primary findings and arguments in this work? On a related note, what theoretical frameworks do you and your colleagues typically use to evaluate presidential rhetoric across different presidential administrations and political contexts?
[Dr. Burnette] Since Trump doesn’t use classical argumentation techniques, and he doesn’t use the most common kinds of political appeals, in this work we really had to think hard about how it is that he’s persuasive, because he’s clearly persuasive. Trump certainly has a unique style of communication. The piece that we wrote looked at how he’s able to make arguments through narrative fragments. And the fragmentary nature of his discourse allows him to make empathetic appeals to his target audience–appeals that his audience in fact helps to construct for themselves. He makes certain assumptions that he believes people have, and in many cases he’s right, at least among his supporter base. He’s speaking to a very devoted base that does share some of his assumptions. And he takes these assumptions and makes these sort of fragmentary arguments that people are able to fill out on their own and use as a way of, again, shaping their own world view.
Because of the fragmentary nature of his discourse, Trump is a challenge to analyze as a rhetor. I am hoping that by thinking about the nature of how his rhetoric often works, and by unmasking this phenomenon of these fragmentary enthymematic appeals, we can encourage people to think more critically about his rhetoric and support their agency in understanding how his rhetoric works. My goal is to help scholars and the public better understand how the Trump administration’s communications function, as this knowledge can empower people to better understand the arguments actually being made.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another area of interest for you is gendered discourse in political contexts—for example, one research article you have published, “My three dads: The rhetorical construction of fatherhood in the 2012 Republican presidential primary,” examines how gender roles are portrayed and reinforced through political campaign rhetoric. In addition, you authored a chapter in the book Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers regarding the politics of motherhood. How do you feel political and presidential communication bleeds into individuals’ values and perspectives (and vice versa), and why is it important to study their impact on the public psyche?
[Dr. Burnette] The gendered nature of messages we hear in social and political spheres has always been interesting to me, perhaps because I am a woman who has observed political phenomena since I was very young. It has always seemed to me that women and men have different strategies available to them as political rhetors, and that they get treated differently in the discourse that people shape around them. If we go back to the premise that rhetoric shapes our reality, this awareness of gendered rhetoric that political figures use and that others use about them gives us a tool for thinking more critically about the messages that we hear.
The Brides, Wives and Mothers piece looked at Michelle Bachman in 2012: she had a successful run for the Republican presidential primary, by a lot of measures. But it was also clear in the press coverage of her that she frequently was defined not as a candidate but as a woman candidate. And to a large degree, she reinforced that. She talked a lot about how her interest in politics stemmed from her concern about her family. She and her husband have a large family and she talked about how she started getting involved through PTA meetings and activities. And then that led her to run for local office and then she progressively ran for higher offices. She portrayed herself as always thinking about how what she was doing would have an impact on her family and on other families.
So that argument is an intriguing one, and it is a vexing one to say the least. It is a way for women to enter the political conversation, because people will take a mother’s concern seriously. But it also has the potential to really limit the kind of political efficacy they can have because they have defined themselves as primarily a mother. On the one hand, when they focus on family-oriented issues and argue that these are the issues that they really want to address, female political candidates automatically get a lot of ethos. But they also get pigeon-holed, in a sense. So that ethos can be a very good thing, but it also seems to automatically constrain them when it’s time to talk about other kinds of issues.
Now the flip side of that is the piece that Dr. Fox and I did on My Three Dads, which was looking again at the Republican primary. And what we found, not surprisingly, was that a more masculine discourse could utilize images of fatherhood and paternal power, and that served to make those candidates stronger in their races. Yet for women, identifying oneself primarily as a political figure because of parental motivations ends up being something that makes them less powerful in the long run. So female political figures who cast themselves as knowing what families need in order to gain a political foothold are compromised by that same foothold.
Talking about the feminine persona in politics also exposes the double bind that women face, not only in politics, but also in other professional settings. For example, if a woman speaks out too strongly on some issues in the workplace, she automatically decreases her credibility because now she’s seen as strident, because she has violated some of the essential precepts of femininity.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How does your research and how do your articles impact politics both directly and indirectly? Who is your target audience for your articles on presidential and government rhetoric? How do you envision your research findings translating into positive changes in the political structure?
[Dr. Burnette] That is a very good question. As a scholar, I always hope that the interactions I have with students, with fellow researchers and conference members, and with readers of my work and writers who cite my work, all make a case for why rhetoric is important. All the other elements of political structure and implementation are important, but rhetoric is just as crucial because it is how a presidential administration makes the case for whatever it is going to do. It is how an administration convinces the broader public to get behind its credo and course of action.
I earnestly hope that the broader public reads these and other scholarly essays on political rhetoric. It is every professor’s wish that the public will peruse these articles and think about them and think about the impact that political rhetoric has on their lives. That’s certainly my hope. I also try to extol that message in my classrooms. And when I talk to reporters, I really try to stress the fact that the rhetoric shapes our reality. Also, the messages we hear are not inevitable. We can look at them and we can decide whether or not we agree with them. And we can push back against them if we want to or we can try to reframe them or redirect them. We have that power. I think that that ability to think critically about messages gives an individual citizen more power than sometimes they feel that they have in the political process.
In the end, I believe in democracy. Democracy works but it is also messy. So I think that paying attention to how we engage in political discourse is important because I think that we as citizens can have a say. We can have a voice. The more we understand about the way rhetoric can shape our reality, the more effectively we can use our voice in the democratic process. And to me, that would be the greatest outcome of my teaching and research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You bring up a great point that rhetoric shapes our reality. Which makes me wonder, in a world where we are surrounded by conflicting rhetoric and consequently conflicting realities, how can people analyze rhetoric and sift through it to approach a version of reality that they feel comfortable with, and which is productive for the social good?
[Dr. Burnette] That’s a really good question. I think the more we understand about how rhetoric works, the more tools we have to identify what we think is ineffective about certain messages. And as a result, the more we can strengthen our own messages and sense of reality. For example, in taking an argumentation class, you hopefully would be more quickly able to identify certain fallacies that you might hear a politician use. And knowing how to listen critically for, not just what the person is saying, but also how they’re constructing their arguments and what the implications of that are, is quite powerful. I think that this knowledge and these critical capabilities give citizens and voters more agency and impact.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of the key theories, principles, and practices that underpin the courses you teach at Texas State University, from Rhetoric of Women’s Rights to American Speeches and the Foundations of Human Communication? What drives you to go above and beyond in teaching your students?
[Dr. Burnette] I regularly teach undergraduate and graduate courses in political communication, as well as the course American Speeches, which is a survey course of American public discourse and the rhetoric of women’s rights.
I’m teaching American Speeches this semester, and I just love it. I love it because it invites me to keep thinking about how our discourse moves through history, what issues get taken up, what issues never go away, and how arguments are constructed around these issues. And every time I teach it I feel invigorated because I get to think about important topics and political debates anew. And that often does inspire ideas for different kinds of research projects. When I am doing my own writing, I am always thinking about how it will translate into the classroom given things that I am learning or analyzing about these kinds of rhetors and these kinds of messages. How does this concept or that insight have an impact on the topics that we’ll be talking about in the classroom?
It is also just really personal for me. There is this great intersection between what I research, what I teach, and how I also try to be as a citizen and as a voter. I see all of those arenas having a strong overlap. So, having the privilege of being able to research these topics and to teach these topics to undergraduate and graduate students–it is a constant opportunity for me to recommit myself to the project of being an American citizen.
Thank you, Dr. Burnette, for your insightful discussion of your research into American political discourse!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.