SHOGAN: Rhetoric is about persuasion. In politics, persuasion is either achieved by using rational, empirical arguments or appeals to emotions or tightly held beliefs. Rhetoric isn’t restricted to scripted speeches. It’s also about prose and conversation.
MCCARTHY: I define political rhetoric as the use of spoken or written word to weigh into the debate — to take a stand on a particular issue — within the realm of contentious politics. This would include speeches, debates, manifestos or party platforms, opinion writing, artistic or cultural forms, social media postings, and the like. I tend to define political rhetoric broadly, encompassing both “insider” (or institutional) politics and “outsider” (or protest) politics — from the left to the right.
More often then not, this will take the form of public expression, though we certainly use political rhetoric in more private interactions, too. I tend to believe that almost anything can be political. To claim that something is without politics — objective rather than subjective — is a politics of its own.
WINGARD: I think the popular or most recognizable aspects of political rhetoric are writing and speech that analyzes, argues, or debates a particular position about a political and/or economic issue that affects local and national audiences. In this conception of political rhetoric, you get everything from presidential speeches, legislative debates, filibusters, news, punditry, media discussions and analyses, and even comedy shows such as "The Daily Show" or "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." Often these discussions are dismissed as biased, uncivil, or mere infotainment. And all too often they can produce a well-circulated meme – think of the Howard Dean “scream” – that influences the debate or dominates the media cycle.
But political rhetoric is more than just what is “number one on The [Colbert Report] Threat Down,” (although I do admit that bears are often quite scary). For me, political rhetoric includes all speech or writing that engages with power, either as a means of representation or intervention.
[An] example of a seemingly less powerful political rhetoric is that of grass-roots organizations. Often it is their actions and/or presence, like Occupy Wall Street, more than their words that are written about and circulated. Like Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. But there are documented instances across history where grass-roots rhetoric has affected key legislation both locally and nationally. The recent flap around the movie "Selma" was interesting in this regard, since some political pundits argued that it showed Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership group as having too much power over legislation, and President Johnson being given too little credit for the Civil Rights Act. But where did power, in this broader sense, actually lie?
THE FIX: Are there any public figures who, at present, stand out as particularly skilled in the rhetorical arena?
LAWLER: I would say that Donald Trump is very skilled. He knows how to focus attention on particular themes. He reminds Americans that a country is a country, and that the most important job of the president is to make sure our country wins and others lose. He’s countering President’s Obama’s claim to be a citizen of the world, and alleging that the president is not sufficiently attuned to what’s best for our citizens. My own view is that Trump’s first principle is followed up by wrong or excessive policies. A focus on citizenship should be followed up by a way of making everyone in our country citizens in the fullness of time.
I also admire the authenticity of Bernie Sanders, who tries to turn the focus of the Democratic Party away from a combination of crony (Wall Street/Silicon Valley) capitalism and identity politics toward a genuine concern for the effect recent economic change has had on the security and dignified autonomy of ordinary Americans. The trouble is that he doesn’t go far enough. Hillary Clinton responded to his charge that she was in the thrall of her Wall Street donors by reminding us that 60 percent of her donors are women. Sanders might have said: But they’re mostly rich women. The trouble with Sanders, of course, is that nostalgia for socialism is strictly speaking reactionary, but there’s no denying that it resonates with those in the middle of the middle class, whose working conditions are suffering when it comes to compensation, security and spontaneity.
Well, one more thing: Although nobody much has been taking him seriously, Chris Christie has been eloquent and precise in laying out the truth about the future of entitlements. Demographic issues alone make them unsustainable. They need to be mended in order that they don’t get ended. Other Republicans tend to the extremes of thinking that the very existence of entitlements is an unconstitutional offense to our liberty or to saying that some new birth of prosperity caused by tax cuts can save them as they are now.
SHOGAN: I was always impressed by Steve Jobs when he did his Apple product launches. Jobs understood his job was to persuade the potential customers that they simply could not live without the new product his team had designed. He spent hours thinking about his speeches and orchestrating his every moment. It took dedication, devotion and passion to execute in this way.
MCCARTHY: I came of age politically during a time — the 1980s and 1990s — when Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill, Pat Buchanan, Barbara Jordan, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson were all prominent figures in American politics. Each, in their own way, provided excellent models of skillful and effective political rhetoric. Now, this doesn’t mean I always agreed with what they were saying, but I was struck by how they said it, which is why I include all of them on my “Arts of Communication” syllabus at the Harvard Kennedy School. As a New Yorker and a Catholic, I was especially moved by Mario Cuomo’s Democratic Convention keynote address and his speech on abortion, religion, and politics at Notre Dame, both in 1984. At his best, Gov. Cuomo was able to use political rhetoric in a way that achieved both eloquence and moral clarity.
More recently, I think Barack Obama — as a candidate and as president — is particularly skillful in the way he uses language to translate, persuade and inspire, which to me are the three hallmarks of great political rhetoric. Notwithstanding the criticism he has gotten about not doing more for the black community in terms of civil rights and social justice, President Obama has been fiercely eloquent whenever he has spoken on issues of race and racism, as he did in his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder and, more recently, in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C.
WINGARD: Most presidents are skilled orators. It is difficult to admit that if you didn’t vote for a particular president or if you disagree with their policies, but both Republican and Democrat presidents alike have excellent speech-writing teams and typify the Quintilian notion of “the good (or bad) man speaking well.” Take for example, George W. Bush post-9/11. Whether you agree with his policies or political positions post 9/11, he made keen use of his speeches to the American public. One of his first speeches delivered by bullhorn on a pile of rubble spoke to the collective grief and fear the U.S. was experiencing. It was also the point where he declared the war on terror, the ever-present, yet invisible threat we are still fighting today. We all know that when we see something, we say something.
In his next formal speech a few days later, Bush encouraged the U.S. public to return to work, school and to shopping as a way to “not let the terrorists win.” Again, he was able to rally the American public not through hate but through a shared commitment to fighting terror, and each citizen had a way to do it in his or her daily lives. Both “see something/say something” and consumption became rallying cries in fighting terror, and Bush was able to succor the U.S. public without engaging in war-hawk rhetoric. (That would come later, but we did not know that yet.) Instead, he focused on solidifying the U.S. “way of life” as best he could.
And his manner as a “folksy,” neighborly orator helped deliver that message. It has been argued that Bush was an ineffectual leader up until 9/11, but that changed after the twin towers fell. And one of the reasons was his ability to unify the American public with his speeches post 9/11. But here is a moment where additional political rhetorical texts become important as a point of contrast. Although Bush’s speeches emphasized a continuity with American life pre-9/11 with phrases such as “business as usual” and “they can’t take away our freedom,” the legislation he supported and signed in response to 9/11 (the USA Patriot Act) and the invasion of Iraq actually created a new normal within the U.S.
On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama is also a skilled orator, but he, much like President Bush, is acutely aware of how to utilize a photo opportunity or image.
Obama’s photo is not only reminiscent, but almost identical to that of Rosa Parks’s photo from 1955. The same type of bus; the same gaze out the window; but the juxtaposition of the subject being both a male and the president of the United States calls into stark relief how much things have changed (or how much they have remained the same) in the U.S. The photo is powerful in that it speaks volumes without the president even saying a word. Obama is a skillful rhetorician in that he knows that images often speak louder than words, especially images that draw direct parallels to history.
THE FIX: Have there been any events or public developments that you would link to the tenor, tone and content of the country’s current political rhetoric? And what do you make of the claim that the current state of American political rhetoric is driving or fueling citizen-on-citizen, politically motivated violence?