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Timothy L. Sellnow


North Dakota's 1989 Tax Referral as Organizational Crisis: The Response of Governor George Sinner

Volume 6, 1993

For organizations to remain stable in a dynamic world, they must adjust to the ever-changing demands of the people they serve (Kreps, 1990). In addition to generating innovative products and services which are valued by consumers, organizations must be prepared to actively justify their actions to regulatory agencies, unions, and constituencies. When the actions of an organization are perceived by the members of its environment to be unethical or irresponsible, the organization's stability or social legitimacy is threatened (Seeger, 1987). In part, then, an organization's continued success depends on its ability to create arguments which explain or justify its actions when such actions are questioned by individuals or groups in its environment. William L. Benoit and James J. Lindsey, (1987) expand upon the work of B. L. Ware and Will A. Linkugel (1973) by applying the genre of apologia to the defensive arguments of organizations in crisis situations. In their study of the Tylenol poisonings, they argue that the apologetic method can serve as a set of topics for analyzing the defensive arguments of organizations. This essay expands upon the work of Benoit and Linsey in two ways. First, a defense for applying the apologetic method to a single organizational spokesperson is offered. Second, Kenneth Burke's concept of purification is introduced as a means of further interpreting the argumentative postures of organizations. Specifically, the apologetic method and the concept of purification are applied to a case study involving the governor of North Dakota's attempts to justify the state legislature's decision to increase taxes in the state.

The North Dakota situation offers a variety of interesting dimensions for analysis from the perspective of apologia. First, the legitimacy of the state's legislature was threatened when voters rejected the tax measures the legislature had endorsed with an overwhelming bi-partisan majority. Second, the members of the legislature remained silent while the state's governor served as the spokesperson for the organization. Third, a majority of the opposition to the legislature's actions took the form of highly personal attacks on the character of the governor, Consequently, the governor's apologetic discourse was both personal and organizational in nature. Hence, the North Dakota tax crisis provides an ideal case study for exploring the relationship between the personal and organizational dimensions of apologetic discourse. What follows is a discussion of how the apologetic postures described by Ware and Linkugel (1973) can be combined with Kenneth Burke's concept of purification to describe the apologetic discourse of North Dakota's governor as he attempted to defend both himself and the legislature. Along with this analysis, a background of the crisis and pertinent conclusions are offered.


The Apologetic Perspective on Discourse

Postures of Verbal Self-Defense

Ware and Linkugel (1973) establish apologetic discourse as a genre. They describe apologia as a response to "an attack upon a a person's character" (p. 274). Ware and Linkugel state that "The questioning of a man's moral nature, motives, or reputation is qualitatively different from the challenging of his policies" (p.274). Hence, apologetic discourse occurs when one offers a defense to attacks that are considered personal. Ware and Linkugel identify four factors commonly found in speeches of self-defense.

The first factor, denial,"consists of the simple disavowal by the speaker of any participation in, relationship to, or positive sentiment toward whatever it is that repels the audience." (p.276). The second factor, bolstering, is the obverse of denial. Bolstering involves the speakers' efforts to involve themselves with facts, sentiments, objects, or relationships which are "viewed favorably by the audience" (p. 277). Ware and Linkugel argue that denial and bolstering are reformative "in the sense that they do not alter the audience's meaning for the cognitive elements involved" (p. 426). The third factor, differenciation, "subsumes those strategies which serve the purpose of separating some fact, sentiment, object, or relationship from some larger context within which the audience presently views the attribute" (p.278). In the case of differenciation, "at least one of the new constructs takes on a meaning distinctively different from that it possessed when viewed as a part of the old, homogeneous context" (p.278). The final factor, transcendence, is the obverse of differenciation. Transcendence includes "any strategy which cognitively joins some fact, sentiment, object, or relationship with some larger context within which the audience does not presently view that attribute" (p. 280). Differenciation and transcendence are transformative in that they affect "the meaning which the audience attaches to the manipulated variable" (p. 280).

Ware and Linkugel indicate that speakers typically assume one of four major theoretical postures when speaking in defense of themselves. They found that these postures involve the combination of a transformative factor and a reformative factor. An absolutive posture is composed of the combination of denial and differenciation. A vindictive posture includes denial and transcendence. An explanative posture combines bolstering and differenciation. Finally, a justificative posture emphasizes bolstering and transcendence (pp. 282-283).



Kenneth Burke addresses apologetic discourse in terms of purification. Burke (1984) claims that society finds order through hierarchy. Sellnow and Seeger (1987) argue that an organization occupies a specific position in a social hierarchy which is associated with the organization's legitimacy. To maintain this position and legitimacy, the organization must meet the demands of the social order by acting within the norms of the society. They argue that a crisis is "an extreme disruption in the status quo, disrupting operations and threatening survival" (p. 10). Thus, in crisis situations, the organization's position in the social hierarchy is threatened. Burke (1961) claims that any such failure to meet the responsibilities of the social order results in guilt. Guilt results in "the terrors of mystery," (Brummett, 1980, p. 65) and produces the need for "the absolute cancellation of such guilt" (Burke, 1984, p.284). Burke describes several options for the purification of guilt.

Burke (1961) claims that purification may result from either victimage or mortification. Victimage is "homicidal" (p.190). In the process of victimage, a scapegoat is offered as a, "'vessel' of certain unwanted evils, the sacrificial animal upon whose back the burden of these evils is ritualistically loaded" (Burke, 1973, pp. 39-40). In brief an appropriate victim is selected and saddled with the guilt of others. Mortification is "suicidal" (Burke, 1961, p. 190). In mortification, one absolves guilt through an inner struggle. Burke (1961) states, "The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect" (p.190). Through these means of purification, one strives to reach a state of new birth or redemption.

Sellnow and Seeger (1989) argue that, in crisis situations, organizations routinely engage in scapegoating. Through such assignments of guilt, organizations attempt to preserve their social legitimacy. They explain that, while such acts of victimage can salvage the legitimacy of an organization, a message of mortification can "enhance a perception of preventive, long-term change and renewed social legitimacy" (p. 17). By signaling change within the organization, messages of mortification may improve the overall image of the organization.

Brummett (1981) adds transcendence to mortification and victimage as means for achieving purification. Though Burke does not specifically discuss transcendence as a component of purification, Brummett explains "he [Burke] clearly argues that transcendence is a way of turning guilt around into virtue, of making it not-a-sin" (p. 256). Brummett concludes, therefore, that transcendence is a way of "dealing with guilt or the threat of guilt by avoiding it" (p. 256).


Organizations as Decentered

An additional factor to consider when analyzing the purification efforts of organizations in crisis situations concerns the focus of messages. Cheney (1989) argues that corporate messages "tend to decenter the individual" (pp. 1516). He observes that individual responsibility is lost in the organization as messages and actions are attributed to the organization as a whole, rather than to the individual speakers or actors. In cases of organizational crises, then, society faces the difficult task of addressing an organization, rather than a group of individuals. Consequently, the organizations' members are often insulated from blame as society is forced to address an organization's image rather than its people.

Seeger (1985) contends that the arguments from organizational leaders should be viewed as products of their organizations. He claims that because organizations are systems of shared meaning, the appeals, arguments, language and metaphors which appear in the public discourse of organizational leaders are as much a product of the organization as they are of the individual leader. In effect, then, organizational leaders personify their organizations. Seeger states, "This personification of the organization in its leader provides followers and observers with an identifiable target for influence, attitudes, and actions" (p. 356). By studying the messages of an organization's spokesperson, then, we can gain an understanding of the "shared meaning" within a particular organization. Similarly, because organizational leaders personify their organizations, their messages impact upon the overall images of their organizations.


Background of the Tax Crisis

In the spring of 1988, educators, human services employees, and the elderly in North Dakota celebrated what they thought was an opportunity to respond to the growing need for their programs in the financially troubled state. The North Dakota legislature had given "overwhelming support " to three tax increases intended to finance salary increases for state workers, and to maintain the quality of education and human services in the state (Roby, 1989a). Legislators gave bi-partisan support for slight increases in the state's income, sales, and fuel taxes. In fact, the income and sales taxes were passed by better than a two-thirds majority ("Group submits," 1989). The elation over the legislature's decision was squelched within a few months of its inception.

Despite the solid bi-partisan support of the legislature, the 1989 tax increases received harsh criticism from conservative North Dakota citizens. Within weeks after the tax increases were approved, Kent French, a mobile home dealer in Bismarck, North Dakota, began spearheading a campaign to overturn the three tax increases. Calling themselves the Citizens Non-partisan Coalition (CNC), French and a loosely organized group of 1300 "conservatives and people who are concerned about the growth of state government" presented the North Dakota Secretary of State with referendum affidavits for all three tax increase measures ("3 N.D. tax," 1989). North Dakota law required that 13,055 signatures it be obtained before the tax increases could be put to a statewide vote ("Group Announces," 1989). In an effort to satisfy the signature requirements, French and the CNC fielded a network of disgruntled citizens which spanned all regions of North Dakota. These efforts proved fruitful. By mid-July of 1989, the CNC announced that it had surpassed the signature minimums for all three tax measures ("Petitions referring income tax," 1989). With the referrals certified, North Dakota Governor George Sinner announced, in September, that a special election would be held on December 5,1989 ("Special Vote", 1989). This announcement marked the beginning of the statewide campaigns for and against the tax increases.

The CNC blanketed the state with literature and speakers supporting its position. Accusations of waste and greed became the dominant themes of the CNC's campaign. Sinner was the primary target of the CNC from the outset of the campaign. Throughout the campaign, French served as the spokesperson for the CNC. French was quoted as saying, "Mr. Sinner. You have gone too far." He also insisted that Sinner possessed an, "arrogance and disregard for the taxpaying public" ("Petitions referring income-tax," 1989). When asked about the many cuts that would be made if the taxes were overturned, French simply said, "Sinner has cried wolf too many times" ("Sinner, French agree," 1989).

Outspoken support for the tax increases came from legislators, educators, human services officials, and from the governor. The scathing attacks on Sinner made by French and others, however, allowed the governor to emerge as the leading spokesperson for the state legislature. Sinner toured the state defending the tax increases with a presentation which was dubbed, "his traveling tax show"(Roby, 1989a). His message was composed of clarifications and warnings Sinner claimed that a vote against the taxes would lead to drastic cuts in education and human services. He also insisted that property taxes would rise sharply (Roby, 1989a). Sinner was vehement in his claim that the state was not wasteful:

We have reduced real dollars in state government by 15 percent in four years, and that has meant giving a smaller percentage of state aid to schools and human services. To us the bottom line in this election is maintaining our current funding level because we don't believe we can reduce the support to our schools or the support to the handicapped and elderly any lower than it is now. (Roby, 1989c)


Clearly, Sinner and the CNC argued from polarized positions at the outset of the referral campaign.

Unfortunately for Sinner and the North Dakota legislature, the tax increases were all overwhelmingly defeated by the state's voters on December 5, 1989. With the new taxes rejected, Sinner and the legislature faced the agonizing challenge of cutting up to 98 million dollars from the state's budget (Roby, 1989d). In the wake of the referral election, Sinner faced the additional threat of a potential recall election ("Campaign for Sinner recall, 1989).


The Apologetic Discourse of Governor George Sinner

Centering on Sinner

Since all three tax measures were endorsed by a vast majority of legislators, the CNC was forced to contend with state government as a whole. For members of the CNC, North Dakota's state government was a decentered organization which had violated their interests. The CNC chose to overcome the de-personalized nature of the legislature by attacking Sinner. Initially, Sinner had two alternatives when faced with these attacks. He could redirect the criticism to the legislature as a whole, or he could serve as spokesperson for the legislature, and defend the measures. He chose the latter stating, "l felt it was my responsibility, as governor, to uphold the actions of the legislature and explain why the state needed the revenue produced by the tax changes, and what was at stake in the special election" (personal communication, August 20, 1990). By accepting this role as spokesperson, Sinner welcomed the criticism of the CNC.


Sinner as justificative

During his "vote-yes" campaign, Sinner argued from a justificative posture. As Ware and Linkugel claim, a message associated with a justificative posture "asks not only for understanding, but also for approval" (p. 283). Sinner's campaign clearly did so. He stated, "I felt that if I could help the people of North Dakota understand the state budget and the needs of this state, they would support the tax increases" (personal communication, August 20, 1990). When asked to describe the theme of his vote-yes campaign, Sinner stated, "The primary theme was 'What's at stake,' and 'There's No Free Lunch' [sic]" (personal communication, August 20, 1990). These themes are best explained through Ware and Linkugel's factors of bolstering and transcendence.

Ware and Linkugel state that when bolstering themselves, speakers attempt to identify themselves with something "viewed favorably by the audience." Throughout the referral campaign, Sinner attempted to identify the tax increases with education and human services. Sinner summarized this position when he stated:

I accepted the role of spokesperson for those who supported the tax increases because I sincerely believed the programs funded by the revenues from those taxes were important to the people of this state, and because I felt so strongly that the alternatives of higher property taxes as well as lower quality education and service were not in the long-range interest of the state. (personal communication, August 20, 1990)


Sinner claimed that the tax increases were vital to maintaining a quality education system in North Dakota. His vote-yes campaign consistently warned voters that rejecting the taxes would cripple the state in its efforts to educate the young and care for the elderly and handicapped citizens. On one of his speaking tours, Sinner told a group of conservative North Dakotans that rejecting the tax increases would lead to "drastic cuts in state services, especially in education and human services" (Sinner does battle, 1989). Reflecting on his vote-yes campaign, he re-emphasized this strategy by stating, "It was most important to refute the allegations that...most of the state budget is spent running the Capitol, when in reality most of the money goes to schools, human service programs and other services provided in local areas" (personal communication, August 20, 1990). In short, Sinner attempted to bolster himself and the legislature by emphasizing the importance of maintaining quality education and human service programs in North Dakota.

As stated above, Ware and Linkagel argue that, for transcendence to occur in apologetic discourse, the speaker must relate the issue at hand to a larger context which differs from the audience's previous understanding of the issue. The CNC described the tax increases as an unjust effort to maintain a wasteful and irresponsible state government system (Roby, 1989b). Conversely, Sinner's theme of no free lunch portrayed the tax increases as a sacrifice for the survival of the state. Sinner and his supporters argued that North Dakota was built by courageous settlers who sacrificed all that they had to settle a land plagued by drought, frigid winters, and hostile inhabitants. Sinner explained that the legislature had made the difficult decision to ask the state's residents to, in the tradition of the past, make a sacrifice for the well-being of the state. One television commercial emphasized this theme by featuring a statue of a family of homesteaders on the capitol grounds. As the camera focused on each figure of the statue, the narrator described the spirit of sacrifice which had helped North Dakota's first residents survive. Clearly, the no-free-lunch theme attempted to transcend the bitterness surrounding the tax increases by viewing them as another example of North Dakota's spirit of courage and sacrifice.

In this justicative posture, Sinner defended the legislature's actions as being both just and conducive to the state's culture. Transcendence dominated Sinner's rhetoric before the actual referral election. Since he attempted to justify the legislature's actions without exception, he displayed no signs of mortification. Surprisingly, Sinner resisted the temptation to designate the CNC as a scapegoat for the referral crisis. One might have expected that the governor would lash out at the group which had bombarded him with the vast majority of its criticism. Sinner admitted that the personal attacks were "painful." He explained, however, that he did not respond "in kind" to the CNC's attacks because he did not want to "reduce this important discussion to mean-spirited, personal attacks from not just the opponents but me as well" (personal communication, August 20, 1990). Consequently, Sinner's vote-yes rhetoric can be described as justificative, with an emphasis on transcendence.


Sinner as Explanative

Following the rejection of all three tax increases in the December vote, the themes of Sinner's rhetoric changed decidedly. The voters rejected his efforts to bolster his "what's at stake" theme with references to education and human services. The lop-sided vote suggests the people were willing to do with less education and service. Similarly, Sinner's efforts to transcend the accusations of waste and excessive spending with his no free lunch theme failed to capture the sentiments of his audience. North Dakota's voters simply refused to sacrifice in the form of tax increases. The magnitude of the opposition peaked, on December 30, 1989, when members of the CNC announced that they would attempt to oust Sinner from office. CNC member, Russell Odegard, formed a committee whose goal was to obtain the 74,770 signatures needed to force a recall election. This situation left Sinner with two rhetorical challenges ("Campaign for Sinner recall", 1989). First, as spokesperson, he had to salvage the reputation of the state legislature which had passed the defunct tax increases. Second, he was forced to contend with a serious threat to his political career.

To meet these post-referral challenges, Sinner shifted from a justificative posture to an explanative posture. Ware and Linkugel explain that a speaker who displays an explanative posture assumes "that if the audience understands his motives, actions, beliefs, or whatever, they will be unable to condemn him" (p. 283). They also indicate that the explanative posture, composed of bolstering and differenciation, is more defensive than is the justificative posture. Clearly, the recall campaign and the solid defeat of the tax increases placed Sinner in a position where he was forced to move toward a more defensive style of argumentation. His efforts toward bolstering and differenciation manifested themselves in a theme of service.

Sinner bolstered himself and the legislature with his service theme. He emphasized how he and the legislature had always strived to serve the state. From the outset of the recall campaign, Sinner insisted he did not fear being removed from office. He said simply, "I have done the best I could do to deal with the problems as they've come along"("Sinner unafraid," 1990). Sinner insisted that his decision to support the tax increases was fostered by his desire to serve the state in the best way possible. Following the defeat of the tax increases, Sinner attempted to bolster his position by continuing to emphasize his willingness to serve. This emphasis on service can be seen in his description of his post-referral efforts:

Following the December vote I have emphasized the importance of making changes and the importance of managing state government carefully and thoughtfully with the reduced resources that are available. As an elect servant of the people, I must carry out their wishes and pursue policies that are in their best interest (personal communication, August 20, 1990).


By emphasizing his role as servant, Sinner established himself as a cooperative participant in the state's efforts to rebound from the economic dilemma it faced.

Most importantly, Sinner's service theme provided him with an ideal means of differentiating his role following the December vote. Sinner explained that his goal had always been to serve the people, and to promote the well-being of the state. He did, however, seek to establish a distinct view of his association with the tax measures following their defeat. Sinner argued that, because the referral vote had made clear to him the will of the people, his efforts to serve the state were actually improved by the election. He explained:

In part, as a response to the December vote, we have set in motion a process for fostering change, for thoroughly analyzing various areas of government service and restructuring them to make them more efficient and effective. That need for change was a message sent by many of those who voted "no" in December (personal communication, August 20,1990).


By describing himself as a public servant who was willing to work within the constraints established for him by those who opposed the tax increases, Sinner made it difficult for the voting public to condemn him.

Sinner's service theme represents a definite move toward mortification. Prior to the referral vote, Sinner had insisted that the survival of the state's education and human services literally depended upon the passing of the new taxes. His "what's at stake" theme painted a dismal picture of North Dakota's future without tax increases. In emphasizing his willingness to work within the financial constraints mandated by the voters' rejection of the tax increases, Sinner admitted that he had failed to adequately assess the concerns of the state's voters. In the months following the referral vote, Sinner admitted that the vote "did have some positive effects." He explained that "many voters felt that making changes in state and local government had to be done...and that holding back funds was the best way to get that done" (personal communication, August 20,1990). After the referral vote, Sinner worked diligently to review the state's financial matters. He founded a state Cost Reduction Committee which has evaluated the current management of local governments, higher education, and the three branches of state government. He is also developing what he labels a "comprehensive new economic development program" which he claimed would help to "further strengthen and diversify the state's economy" (personal communication, August 20,1990). In short, for Sinner to differentiate his role as servant after the election from his role as servant before the election, he had to admit that he had failed to recognize to the needs of many North Dakotans. His willingness to admit his earlier miscalculations and to make adjustments in key programs served as an effective means of doing so.

Sinner's explanation of his motives during the referral campaign was further enhanced by supportive comments coming from some of the legislators he had defended during the campaign. Leaders from both parties supported the Democratic governor. The senate minority leader, a Democrat, insisted the recall was "one of the most childish reactions that I have ever seen from anyone" ("Lawmakers say recall," B 1). The senate majority leader dismissed a recall as an appropriate means of assessing the Sinner's performance by saying "The battle ground for governor should be fought in the 1992 campaign" ("Lawmakers say recall," 1990).

By January, 1990, the recall effort had lost momentum. Odegard, the recall organizer, admitted on January 17,1990, that he did not have enough people in place to obtain the signatures necessary for the recall. Odegard admitted his frustration in an interview "I thought I would have things in better shape by now, but I haven't had enough support" ("Sinner recall effort," 1990). Despite his inability to succeed in his attempt to recall Sinner, Odegard insisted that he would continue to monitor support for the recall. He said "A lot of people feel this thing will fester, and we'll get more support later on" ("Sinner recall effort," 1990).

Support for the recall did not come. Sinner managed to reclaim a good deal of his popularity in the year following the referral campaign. One year before the referral campaign, S7% of those polled by the state's largest newspaper gave Sinner excellent or good ratings, while 41% rated him as fair to poor. In the summer following the referral vote, Sinner still managed to earn excellent to good ratings from 50% of those polled in a similar study (Roby, 1991a). Sinner had seriously considered running for a third term as governor in 1992, but shocked his party by announcing on November I,1991, that his political career would end at the conclusion of his second term. Three months earlier, he had undergone heart bypass surgery while attending the annual meeting of the Western Governors' Association. He told reporters at a news conference, "I have committed every ounce of my almost everything that I have done. It is time that I spend some time particularly with a little less involvement and a little less pressure" (Roby, 1991b).



Sinner's performance suggests that a rhetor can change postures during a crisis without being condemned by her or his relevant audience. Sinner successfully changed postures as the crisis intensified. When it became impossible for him to justify the tax increases, he simply sought to explain the reasoning behind the decision to pass them. Similar changes in posture could occur in any organizational crisis which includes a period of debate. If once judgment has been passed, an organization has failed to justify its actions, that organization may benefit from a shift in posture away from justification and toward explanation.

Sinner's decision to emphasize transcendence and mortification in his apologetic discourse, rather than victimage, was appropriate. In retrospect, it appears that the majority of North Dakota's voters identified more closely with the concerns voiced by the CNC than with those articulated by Sinner before the referral vote. If Sinner had placed blame for the debate solely upon his opponents, he would have, in a vicarious sense, been criticizing the majority of the state's voters. His justificative posture allowed him to appeal to the values held sacred by North Dakotans without insulting his opponents. In the wake of the election, he could be accused only of exaggerating the threats to these values which were posed by the referrals. Consequently, Sinner was able to make a smooth shift from his justificative posture to his explanative posture. During periods of public deliberation, then, organizations in crisis situations should carefully consider the public's perception of the crisis before attempting to establish any regulatory agencies, unions, or special interest groups as scapegoats.

Sinner's explanative posture was also effective in communicating a change in the organizational image of state government. As spokesperson for the legislature, Sinner's message of mortification, following the crisis, helped to communicate to the state's voters that their state government was willing to review its policies. The widely visible changes enacted by Sinner have helped to communicate the "renewed social legitimacy" described by Seeger and Sellnow (1989). Messages stressing transcendence or victimage would have been perceived as routine, and could not have communicated such a sensitivity to the population's needs.

It is also important to note that Sinner's shift to an explanative posture was made easier by the fact that he had not performed in an unethical manner. The attacks on him were, in realty, attacks made on the legislature as a whole. Sinner served only as a spokesperson for an organization whose performance was questioned. Had Sinner been accused of independently performing in a reckless or unethical manner which violated the mission of the organization, he would have had a much more difficult time salvaging his reputation with a message of mortification.

By combining Burke's concept of purification with the apologetic postures described by Ware and Linkugel (1973), we can come a step closer to understanding the relationship between organizational spokespersons and the public images of organizations during times of crisis. We live in a time when organizational crises impact all of us. Further analysis of the arguments associated with such crises is vital to our ability to serve as conscientious consumers of not only organizational products and services, but their messages as well.



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