"The Domain of Public Consciousness," by Mary E. Stuckey


Mary E. Stuckey. “‘The Domain of Public Consciousness’": Woodrow Wilson and the Establishment of a Transcendent Political Order. Rhetoric and Public Affairs 6.1 (2003): 1–24.

Reviewed by Michael L. Butterworth, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington

In 2004, the United States has a president who speaks of a providential mission to bring democracy to the world, who resists complexity and does not “do nuance," and who insists that the only way to be an American in a post-9/11 world is to submit to a unity constituted and perpetuated by the government. Although George W. Bush would likely claim Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon as his rhetorical inspirations, Mary E. Stuckey's article, “‘The Domain of Public Consciousness,’" suggests that Bush’s construction of American democracy and citizenship might owe more to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

Nearly a century ago, Wilson faced a rhetorical challenge because, as Stuckey notes, “the polity he attempted to unite was both diverse and fractious" (1). Among the issues before the president were growing labor unrest, a strengthening women’s suffrage movement, and heightened violence in the Jim Crow South. Rather than address each segment of a pluralistic society, Wilson absorbed these particularities into the universal American citizen and, as Stuckey argues, “set the stage for the ‘American Century’" (2). Her essay, informed by Kenneth Burke’s notions of transcendence and consubstantiality, proceeds by demonstrating three strategies the president used to achieve a singular unity among the polity. By first relying on the Democratic Party as a “non-partisan" instrument of political action and then delimiting the reach of the executive branch into matters of “state's rights," Wilson mobilized a third strategy, whereby a rhetoric of consubstantiality “supported Wilson’s claim to be sole arbiter of American values and sole spokesperson for the nation" (3).

Stuckey’s analysis is persuasive, and she supports her thesis with multiple accounts from Wilson’s public speeches. What is arguably most striking is the extent to which Wilson deployed inclusive language while pursuing policies that were at best indifferent and at worst in opposition to women, African-Americans, and immigrants. “Over and over," she writes, “Wilson claimed that there were no interests that divided Americans; he listed all Americans as equal in his prose, and insisted that all Americans were spiritually identified and identical" (9). Moreover, he extended his defense of American principles into foreign policy, through which he sought to bring democracy and “civilization" to the world. As Stuckey reveals, “These examples amounted to a narrative of identification that, again in Burke’s words, served to ‘cloak the state of division’ as it asserted national unity" (14).

Stuckey concludes that Wilson’s public communication not only had consequences for the American public at the time, but also “helped him establish the definitional primacy of the office in the twentieth century" (17). This, no doubt, is the case. However, Stuckey stops short of extending her analysis into concrete contemporary terms and therefore bypasses an opportunity to further her Burkean contribution. Perhaps constrained by the limits of space any author wrestles with in a journal article, Stuckey nevertheless fails to draw important parallels between a Wilsonian rhetoric and one utilized by President Bush. When Wilson stated, for example, that “America has a cause which is not confined to the American continent. It is the cause of humanity itself" (16), he forecasted Bush’s own claim that “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, but is God’s gift to humanity" (“State"). In the context of the so-called “war on terrorism," we would be wise to heed the lessons of history.

Burke himself, of course, famously warned in “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,’" that Hitler’s “medicine" should be understood critically so that we might “forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America" (191). Bush’s rhetoric, and the disturbing restrictions on civil liberties enabled by it, indeed are worthy of such caution and critique. For as the Bush administration continues to insist that dissent is unpatriotic and only helps bolster the cause of America’s enemies, it should be clear that the exclusions masked by Wilson in a language of inclusion are equally applicable and relevant to the political climate today.

Stuckey’s use of Burke’s critical vocabulary yields an analysis that clearly demonstrates the potency of the “rhetorical presidency." Although she does not pursue a comparative approach, her eloquent assessment of Wilson’s rhetorical strategies invites other critics to explore the ways in which a Burkean attitude may contribute a productive comic voice. Significantly, she suggests that even as presidents speak one language they may be enabling another. More than ever, we are reminded that a critical attitude toward presidential rhetoric and leadership is necessary if we are to engage, respect, and welcome the diversity of the world in which we all live.

Works Cited

Bush, George W. “State of the Union." 28 Jan. 2003. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-19.html (27 September 2004).

Burke, Kenneth. “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’" The Philosophy of Literary Form. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.