Political Communication Ethics Syllabus

The below syllabus is very much a draft and a work in progress. It has been edited slightly to take out GW-specific details.

 DRAFT v.1 Last updated 1/11/18


Political Communication Ethics

Spring 2018

Instructor: Peter Loge


“The world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly.”

  • Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College

This course will raise the question of what, if any, ethical responsibility those who work in politics have, and to whom or what they have those responsibilities. The course will be a mix of theories about what counts as ethical communication in politics in the abstract, and specific situations in which you may find yourself in a career in politics.

You will be expected to do the readings, think about their connections to events in politics, and participate in class discussions.  Quality of insight is better than quantity of words, and challenging questions and questioning of assumptions is always more interesting than just tagging along. 

The success or failure of this class rests largely on you and your colleagues.  If you listen closely to your peers, make unexpected connections, and take intellectual risks, the fall will be a very interesting conversation.



You will have an in class midterm and a take home final exam. The midterm will largely ask you to provide short answers to questions about the readings and class discussions. The final will likely present an ethical challenge to which you will be asked to respond.

The midterm exam will be worth 15% of your final grade

The final exam will be worth 20% of your final grade


You will have six short essays as indicated in schedule below. Each essay should be no more than 500 words – I will stop reading at the 500th word and grade you on the essay to that point. Essays should be emailed and are due at the start of the class period.

Each short essay will be worth 5% of your final grade

You will also have a final paper due by the start of class on April 26. NO LATE PAPERS WILL BE ACCEPTED. For your final paper you should construct and defend an ethical foundation for your work – to what standard(s) will you hold yourself accountable in your career? Papers should be emailed and handed in on paper.

Your final paper will be worth 25% of your final grade


You are expected to constructively add to the conversation, which means you should do, think about, and be prepared to talk about the readings.  You are also expected to pay attention to the political world around you and think about it in terms of the course.  You should have ideas and opinions and be able to defend them. 

You will not be rewarded for just talking a lot.

Participation will be worth 10% of your final grade


Readings are listed in the course schedule below.  In addition I may email articles or essays during the week that strike me as interesting. 


You are expected to come to class and participate in class discussions. You may miss class for a good reason that you clear with me in advance. Good reasons include illness and family emergencies – not everything you consider a good reason will fit into my definition of a good reason.

Course Ethics

You have several ethical responsibilities in this course.  This is a small group, in a small space, for several hours at a time.  For this adventure to work for all of us, each of us needs to do the readings and think about them.  We must respect each other’s positions on the readings, and honor intellectual experiments (the “what if….” positions); that means people should be willing and able to change their minds, to defend their positions, and challenge the positions of others.  Critically, one should never confuse an argument with the person making the argument – positions are not people. This means you should not attack people, only their claims and you should do so based on reasoning.  Similarly, you should defend your positions as if they were ideas to be kicked around, not children to be protected.

Cheating and plagiarizing are not acceptable.  They will be punished to the greatest extent permitted by The George Washington University policy.  All exams, papers, and other work products are to be completed in conformance with The George Washington University Code of Academic Integrity.


I work from the premise that you are all adults.  You are responsible for everything that happens in class.  If you miss a session, you should find a colleague from whom to get notes, readings, etc. 


Week One      Introduction and Norms

Jan 16              Introductions and discussion

Jan 18              First essay due: Identify something you think violated political communication ethics, explain why it was a violation, and how the same goal could have been accomplished ethically. Remember: I stop reading at 500 words, and not late essays will be accepted.

Part One: Foundations

Week Two                   American Foundations

Jan 23              Read: Federalist 1 and 49, the US Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.

Jan 25              Bring in and be prepared to discuss another foundational American document (i.e., Washington’s inaugural addresses or farewell address, Lincoln’s inaugural addresses, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).       

Week Three                 Foundations of American Foundations

Jan 30              Plato 

Read: Gorgias, available here http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/gorgias.html (and many other places)

You will find life easier if you peruse this first: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-rhetoric/#Gor

Second Essay Due: Explain the relevance of a foundational American text to current American politics. Remember – I stop reading at 500 words and no late papers will be accepted.

Feb 1               Guest: Republican House Communications Director


Read: The Politics, Book III Available here (and many other places) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.3.three.html

Feb 1               Identify and be prepared to discuss something in the news that runs afoul of Aristotle – would Aristotle have been right to be upset? Or did his ethics miss something important?

Week Four                 Quntilian

Feb 6               Third Essay Due: Identify a recent political speech, ad, tweet, etc. that violates a norm or value and rework or rewrite it to maintain the political punch without violating the norm or value.

                        Read: Quintilian Book 12

Feb 8               Identify and be prepared to discuss something in the news that Quintilian would agree or disagree with.

Week Five                   Machiavelli

Feb 13             Guest Senior Republican strategist

Feb 15             Read: “Machiavellian Democracy: Controlling Elites with Ferocious Populism” by John P. McCormick, The American Political Science Review, Vol 95 No2 (June 2011) pp 297-313

Week Six                     Orwell

Feb 20             Read: Politics and the English Language – available here and elsewhere – https://faculty.washington.edu/rsoder/EDLPS579/HonorsOrwellPoliticsEnglishLanguage.pdf

Feb 22             Fourth Essay Due: Identify a recent piece of political communication to which Orwell would object. Change it to bring it in line with Orwell while still keeping it compelling.

                                    Discuss essays

Week Seven    Civil Discourse           

Feb 27             Guest: President of a national organization promoting civil discourse

            March 1           Civil discourse, continued

Week Eight    MID TERM and Check In

            March 6           Check In

            March 8           Mid Term

Week Nine     SPRING BREAK

Part Two: Contemporary Views

Week 10         Ethics in Practice

March 20         Guest: Career federal communications officer

March 22         Guest: Communications director of a left of center economic think tank

Week 11          Civil Religion

March 27         Read: “Losing Our Civil Religion” John D. Carlson, Religion & Politics, Sept 26, 2017 http://religionandpolitics.org/2017/09/26/losing-our-civil-religion/ and “The Soul of a Nation” Wilfred McClay in The Public Interest Spring 2004 https://nationalaffairs.com/public_interest/detail/the-soul-of-a-nation (and a podcast here http://tikvah.libsyn.com/wilfred-mcclay-on-americas-civil-religion)

Guest: Conservative public intellectual and political scientist

March 29         Identify and be prepared to discuss a political statement that undermined civil religion, and how you could rewrite it to keep the statement politically strong and supportive of civil religion.

Week 12          Political Norms

            April 3             Read:   “Norms Matter” Brendan Nyhan, Politco Sept/Oct 2017

 “How the GOP Prompted the Decay of Political Norms” EJ Dionne, Norm Ornstein, and Thomas Mann, The Atlantic Sept 19, 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/09/gop-decay-of-political-norms/540165/ and

“Unwritten Rules: Informal Institutions in Established Democracies” Julia Azari and Jennifer K Smith, Perspectives on Politics Vol 10 No 1, March 2012

Guest: Senior policy staffer at a left of center think tank

April 5             Fifth Essay Due: Identify a political norm that is being broken and restructure the argument in a way that makes the same political point while simultaneously strengthening a democratic norm

                                    Discuss essays

Part Three: Applications/Case Studies

Week 13         Standards

April 10           A number of business and professional (though not specifically political) organizations have ethical standards and benchmarks. Identify and be prepared to discuss at least one of these in class. Examples include QED Consulting https://qedconsulting.com/component/content/article/104-services/products/160-global-ethics-and-integrity-benchmarks?Itemid=566, Accenture https://www.accenture.com/us-en/company-ethics-code, and the Society for Professional Journalists https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. There are many, many others as well.

April 12           A number of political and communications organizations have codes of ethics. Identify one such code and be prepared to discuss and critique it in class. Organizations with codes include the American Association of Political Consultants (https://theaapc.org/) and the Public Relations Society of America (https://www.prsa.org/ethics/code-of-ethics/), There are many others as well.

Week 14         Ethics in Practice

April 17           Guest: Senior Vice President for Policy at a left of center think tank

            April 19

Week 15   TBD

            April 24