Ideographs in the Economy of Political Communication

If you were to open up any campaigning handbook to the messaging section, you’d inevitably find exhortations, commands, and reminders to keep your messages short: short slogans, non-complex sentences, memorable short phrases. It’s reminiscent of being lectured on saving money by older folks when I was younger; there’s a similar appeal to the scarcity of resources. 

Anybody who works on campaigns understands that discourse is an economy. Simply put, we always have little time and limited space to say as much as we can, and hope that the right things get remembered. Although AI can create algorithms and we can tip the scales through microtargeting and other data-driven surgical strikes — something that data append vendors like Accurate Append can help support — no candidate can or will try to escape the burden of messaging. It’s just too important. 

Rhetorical scholars study this economy of discourse, the way meaning can be denotatively packed into words and other symbols and signs. For Aristotle, rhetoric was a skill, and the ability to see the available means of persuasion in any given situation. He believed that audiences shared common iconic thoughts and history with speakers, so speakers should naturally use familiar words and phrases to take advantage of those topoi, those common places. 

One of the more interesting analytical tools for studying the way that a few words can speak many more words — or how symbols and words can combine — is the “ideograph,” the most comprehensive treatment of which comes from the work of comm-rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee. 

The ideograph is subtly different from the “ideogram” although the two are sometimes used interchangeably. An ideogram is a graphic symbol representing a concept independent of a particular language. The parameters of that definition are a bit fuzzy, but what scholars typically mean are things like Egyptian hieroglyphics, or symbols put in multilingual public spaces like the fifty DOT pictograms conveying things like train stations, hotels, or toilets. Ideograms are symbols that mean words.

In contrast, ideographs — as Michael Calvin McGee explains in his definitive article on the ideograph in 1980 — make symbols out of words. Ideographs are phrases or sentences that create or reinforce political and, ultimately, ideological positions. That these are ideological and not just political is important. Politics are minutiae: policies, one candidate or another, personality disputes. Ideology is systemic, moral, committed. An ideograph saying simply that public transit would save energy would not be very effective. On the other hand, an ideograph that said “public transportation: good for everyone, good for the planet” pushes the idea into the realm of the ideological. It conceptualizes public transportation in terms of the common good, the need for universal infrastructure, a commitment to environmental sustainability.

There’s an assumption in McGee’s work — and in much study of political rhetoric — that ideology is always going to be characterized by sloganeering of one kind or another. There’s always an assumption that things must be simplified, though not because people are unintelligent and cannot understand ideas in all their complexity. The goal is not to be like Snowball, the revolutionary pig in Orwell’s Animal Farm, who deliberately simplifies everything for the animals who aren’t as smart. Rather, the goal is, in recognizing the ‘economy’ of discourse, to economize our words: our time and resources are scarce, other people’s time and resources are scarce, and the demands of the world and the diversity of culture and thought (particularly in a huge country like the United States) force the choices of a finite world. 

Ideographs work because people already (mostly) understand and agree with them when they see them. In containing their unique ideological commitment, McGee argues, ideographs rest on the assumption that everyone in a particular “community” or cluster of belief will understand their complexity and nuance. Consider a well-known joke as an analogy: the purpose isn’t the punchline, it’s getting people into the joke itself. 

In this respect, ideographs often use another rhetorical device called enthymeme. In its classical sense (again developed and explained by Aristotle), the enthymeme is a type of syllogism where one of the premises is hidden or suppressed. The word has later come to mean any kind of argument, formal or informal, where the speaker/writer assumes that the audience already knows part of the information necessary to walk from the introduction to the conclusion. When a Republican operative said in 2007 that they knew the American people weren’t going to elect “Barack Hussein Obama” as president and over-enunciated “Hussein,” that was an enthymeme. There, the suppressed premise was that the name “Hussein” denoted terrorism, an Iraq despot, and/or Islam (thereby stoking Islamophobia). Enthymemes are natural allies to ideographs, because they reduce the amount of words needed to make a point and don’t have to be argumentatively or logically accountable for every word used. 

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a strong ideograph. It’s a short and proactive phrase using ordinary language to indicate a virtual Las Vegas buffet of ideological commitment. Its conservatism is found in the word “again,” suggesting a return to the past. Its radicalism and populism is found in the word “make,” indicating the need for proactive restoration of a golden age. The enthymeme — the argument with the hidden premise — is “America,” and implicitly indicates that there are certain forces that have rendered America no-longer great. These forces might include President Obama, hatred of whom is an obsession for Trump. Similarly, they might include the “deep state” that the administration constantly invokes to convey an image of powerful corrupt insiders. 

McGee calls the ideograph “a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal.” That ambiguity, along with its ability to do a lot with a little, gives it utility as a tool of campaigning and mobilization. It creates a common mythos, strengthened by each person’s commitment to an unstated moral imperative.