This essay seeks to illuminate Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony “which represents an attempt to reconcile the demands of philosophy with the requirements of political action” (Fontana 97) and bring his theory into the 21st Century. An example of the rhetorical debate between the United States Government and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over the location and construction of the North Dakota Pipeline is one that represents well Gramsci’s theory of “the dual nature of power: force and consent, violence and persuasion, both of which define political action” (Fontana 99). What makes sense to a nation’s society is what hegemony is all about. My thesis would argue that we may be witnessing our culture making big decisions right now concerning what makes sense and facilitating positive change for all citizens.
Rosemary Hennessey is quoted in Palczewski defining hegemony as: “the process whereby the interests of a ruling group come to dominate by establishing the common sense, that is, those values, beliefs, and knowledges that go without saying” (29). The diversity of the citizenship of The United States of America demands a nimble leadership that is able to maintain a common sense that is acceptable to many. The North Dakota Pipeline issue features the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition to the Federal Government’s approval for the pipeline’s location which passes through “resting places of their ancestors” (Toineeta 1). Sociopolitical common sense within the USA is glaringly on the side of the Sioux, yet the United States Government continues to place itself on the side of fiscal common sense; on the side of —shall we say— free capitalism. Now a conspiracy theorist may propose that the United States Government purposefully approved the pipeline knowing that it was in violation of various statues for the purpose of exercising its power through rhetorical hegemony. This theory would look something like: Do it and when they complain, we’ll give in, making us look like we care.
That is how far-removed we are from Gramsci’s Hegemony. As Liu Kang says, modern hegemony “betrays a fundamental contradiction or paradox: the revolutionary theory of the Italian communist leader is now appropriated by the academic Left of the West to address contemporary cultural issues that have little to do with social revolution” (Kang 1). It is safe to say that no one knew about the pipeline until the issue was brought to the attention of media elites and rendered into the 24-hour news cycle. Shall we wonder if the United States Government knew that this would become a controversy all along? Surely they did. The permits were issued, monies invested, meetings held. For their part, the opposition out of Standing Rock had only to complain for the United States Government to acquiesce:
The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws. Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time (Joint Statement).
Skillful rhetoric, in that the United States Government separated itself much like a cell, becoming internally hegemonic if you will. The Executive Branch disavows its relationship with The U.S. Army, which it diagnoses as a cancerous growth upon society, a communications theory Stuart Hall will term negotiated coding. All-along, of course, the Army simply follows the orders of the Chief Executive, but the people do not realize it and the President is enabled to arrive ‘just in the nick of time to save the day.’ The government thus exercises perfect power over the citizenry by “determining what makes sense” (Palczewski 29). In hindsight we may see the rhetoric plainly, as if a veil had been lifted.
While researching this topic, I discovered conservationist George Bird Grinnell’s Tenure of Land Among the Indians. Grinnell sought the use of hegemony to make a common sense argument for the indigenous citizens of the United States of America. In our day and age his rhetoric is blatantly racist in its treatment of them. For example in 1907 Grinnell advocates that northern Cheyenne and “the Crows” should be “allotted” lands “if they are to continue to be a settled people and not wanderers and beggars like the Cree of northern Montana” (10-11). He is convinced that the Lakota people are unable “even imagine the ownership of land by persons” (1). Thus, the common sense of the day according to Grinnell was that “The civilized man and the savage man are utterly unlike in mental attitude” (1), yet what is this mental attitude of Grinnell’s civilized man? He does not mix words, writing “we must recognize . . . [the extinction of indigenous peoples] as nothing more than the operation of the inexorable natural law that the weaker must perish while the fitter must survive” (6). Reading against the grain, we may recognize his “fitter” people as the wealthy, white American male. In 1870, racists took advantage to initiate harmful hegemonic rhetoric after the 15th Amendment guaranteed that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote, “shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (U.S. Constitution), it took another amendment; the 24th, to protect people from “denied or abridged [voting rights] by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” (U.S. Constitution). These rights should be common sense but remember: when it comes to hegemony, common sense is defined by the rhetor, in this case the United States Government is the “ruling group” (Hennessy qtd. in Palczewski 29). Hegemony is a limiter in the sense that it “reduces one’s agency because it limits the choices that make sense to a rhetor or audience” (Palczewski 29). In other words, hegemony may be understood as that national ideology which makes sense to us as citizens. In our presidential election season we may see this concept being stretched into new conceptions of what we see as our national ideology and what we can or should expect from presidential candidates in terms of qualification, temperament, and experience. Overshadowing the traditional ideologies of patriotism and platform, our rhetor seems to have distanced from a post-traditionalism of elder statesmen, and become the mass media. Mass media shows our views of the world to us, and induces us to take sides. Because mass media has fully become integrated into the Internet, the mimesis lens is focused: Internet was Art, and Television and Radio was Life. No longer for we understand that, as Oscar Wilde quipped,” Life imitates Art,” —to steal the idiom: the tail wags the dog. Increasingly, even the candidates seem to have lost what control they had over the media-as-rhetor. What the candidates may have believed to have been the issues most important to the citizenry — terrorism, employment, taxes, civil rights — are supplanted with other ideas of their i.e., the media’s making. This removes agency from the audience perhaps, because we are told what our interests should be instead of the inverse or we desire agency and voice in the argument, but we may feel unable to argue with mass media. There is real feeling of rejection for many in the electorate for the first time in—quite possibly—modern history. There may be little recourse for those citizens who find themselves labeled not present, rejected, or negated as Philip Wander’s “third persona” (qtd. In Palczewski 214) within his or her “dominant cultural order” (Hall 513). Wander’s rhetorical third persona had for many years, been rejected by dominant ideology as unimportant peoples, yet perhaps the ranks of this audience are swelling—perhaps overflowing—with millions of people who previously had agency in one or another political party. Evidence of this purposeful construction of the—call it big tent—third persona was voiced in recent speeches by the candidates. Recent rhetoric of a presidential candidate skillfully created a second persona, Edwin Black’s “you to whom the rhetor speaks” (qtd. In Palczewski). The candidate called her opposition “. . . the basket of deplorables.” Then seeks agreement with the second persona—almost permission—to go there: “Right?” She asks, “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And [the opponent] has lifted them up” (qtd. in Mehta). Note how the candidate then shifts responsibility for the words or the negotiated code, as Stuart Hall theorizes, onto the country per se: “Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America” (my emphasis). This is boilerplate hegemony, as the “audience understands quite adequately what has been dominantly defined and professionally signified” (Hall 516). Negotiated code uses the dominant definitions (in this case the very definition of civil rights, perhaps) because they:
Connect events, implicitly or explicitly to grand totalisations, to the great syntagmatic views-of-the-world: they take large views of issues: they relate events to the ‘national interest’ or to the level of geopolitics even if they make these connections in truncated, inverted, or mystified ways (Hall 516).
The second persona thus explodes with those who want to believe that they are American, that they fit into the America the candidate tells them they belong to. Those within the rhetor’s third persona unable or unwilling to decode the rhetoric may flee from the third persona towards the second persona. Those already dedicated to opposition in the third persona are ripe for the counter-rhetor who responds:
“I was . . . deeply shocked and alarmed this Friday to hear my opponent attack, slander, smear, demean these wonderful, amazing people . . . from every part of America and every walk of life . . . cops and soldiers, carpenters and welders, the young and the old, and millions of working class families . . . She divides people into baskets as though they were objects, not human beings” (qtd. In Blake).
When formal apologies seem to be demanded by mass media occupying Hall’s hegemonic decoding position: the democrat rhetor replies, ” I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong” (qtd. In Mehta). The republican seems to have focused his rhetoric squarely upon his rival’s political record, using the negotiated decoding position:
It’s just one more massive failure from a failed secretary of state. It’s a war we shouldn’t have been in, number one, and it’s a war that, when we got out, we got out the wrong way. [She] is trigger-happy. Her tenure has brought us only war, destruction and death. She’s just too quick to intervene, invade, or to push for regime change (qtd. in Holland).
Finally, we return to the democrat in the hegemonic decoding position:
It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position” (qtd. in Koran).
Throughout my research, I’ve noticed the utter stalwart resistance to change by those whom seem to be firmly entrenched in the oppositional code. It would seem that in this election year (quite possibly in every election year and I had missed it), those who occupy the oppositional coding are of the third persona. Mass media reports often how voters are harboring sentiments of disenfranchisement, loathing of the political process, or feelings of hopelessness. With that in mind I do wonder if this could be the start of significant change within the country’s sociopolitical standard or the dominant definition of what it means to be American. Another excellent essay topic may investigate the rise in counter-hegemony. Because “members of the culture uphold the ideology” (Palczewski 29) of the nation, we may see a generation of Americans now beginning to organize a new hegemony. In the recent past American groups such as the aforementioned Blacks and Indigenous, and also the Asians, Latinos, and others have met or continue to meet this challenge. One may imagine that what made sense to the majority of the past no longer makes much sense at all.
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Fontana, Benedetto. “The Democratic Philosopher: Rhetoric as Hegemony in Gramsci” Italian Culture, vol. 23, 2005, pp. 97-123.
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