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A Series of Grunts and Whistles: Making Sounds and Saying Words in Political Discourse.


Is politics becoming more aggressive? Or are we focusing on the outliers? If discourse is becoming less civil, what are the causes and effects of any rise in mutual disdain among political actors? In this dissertation I look at variation in the basic prosodic elements of loudness, pace, pitch, and pitch variance in congressional speeches. To test for any increases in aggression I capture over 60 million seconds of footage from the C-SPAN library for the 109th through 112th Congresses. This covers House and Senate floor proceedings encompassing nearly 700 days of video in the 2005 to 2012 period. Not everyone expresses anger and aggression in the same way. To control for this I develop legislator-specific baselines of emotional expression. Using the vocal and lexical components from a subset of House speeches I also test the possibility that not only actively negative but also actively positive speeches may affect political outcomes.

With this large and novel sonic data set I demonstrate that congress members are becoming more fevered in their speech. Becoming more aggressive is not necessarily becoming aggressively negative. Comparing vocal dimensions with the actual words that legislators speak, I find a positive relationship between talking louder, faster, and with elevated pitch and making more negative statements. Turning to the causes and effects of these changes, I find that House members are more likely to speak aggressively and that more controversial legislation similarly encourages aggression. On the other side of things, speaking style affects productivity. Faster speakers are less capable of drawing cosponsors on their legislation while those with greater pitch variation experienced the opposite. The inverse is true for a legislator's ability to move things through congress to the president's desk. When it comes to electoral outcomes, legislators who raise their pitch are more likely to lose in a primary. I also find that such a raise in pitch can signal a member's political aspirations to higher office, in particular the Senate or a Governorship.

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