Branding Law: Genre, Rule of Law, and U.S. Federal Public Legislation

In a liberal democracy, legislation is meant to be published and accessible, expressing law’s rationality, neutrality, and general applicability. Yet legislation, with its frequently tortured and convoluted syntax, is notoriously alienating. This frequent illegibility is in tension with rule-of-law ideals requiring law to be published, clear, and generally accessible.   

Since the 1980s, U.S. federal legislation has incorporated features of two genres with established and widespread popular appeal – melodramatic political discourse and the rights declaration – which use keywords and syntax to be popularly accessible and inspiring. However, the increased incorporation of these genres calls into question whether these incorporations make legislation more accessible for the public or if, instead, they traffic in populist and nationalistic rhetoric in order to appear more accessible. Through a focus on the keyword “freedom”, this project asks, do legislative invocations of freedom, when disseminated through mass media, obscure the politics of law while amplifying familiar moral appeals through repetition, political myth, and common-sense knowledge?  

Applying sociolegality’s interdisciplinary theories and methodologies, alongside critical discourse studies (CDS), Jothie Rajah will illuminate how genre-bending reconfigures the language and politics of law in a major liberal democracy, with a focus on the meanings made for concepts central to law, including freedom, law, democracy, human rights, jurisdiction, ‘the people’, and sovereignty.  

This project will produce a publicly accessible website featuring the project’s data from systematic content analysis of legislation, congressional debates, and news media.