Table of Contents
What is Rhetoric? It’s Politics.
Whether we love or hate any candidate, law, or policy, all came into being through Rhetorical battles, are maintained on Rhetorical grounds, and affect us through the Rhetoric of those creating, interpreting, and enforcing them. If politics were a painting, Rhetoric is the medium it’s brushed in, the hair on the bristles, the canvas it’s placed on, the building it hangs in, and the gaze it’s viewed by. It’s even the air making it wet or dry to the touch.
From the Checkers Speech1 to how a ballot is worded, every vote won, and every scandal sung, is sang in Rhetorical tune. From our posture to our polling, we win and lose every election on our Rhetorical prowess — whether it be our own, or purchased from people like me. All campaign backing is bought with Rhetoric. And all campaigns are fought with Rhetoric. We get out of every jam by tapping Rhetorical knowledge and skills, and we place our opponents in theirs by jamming them up in the same way.
Nothing is Neutral
What satire on government can equal the severity of censure conveyed in the word politic, which now for ages has signified cunning, intimating that the State is a trick? — Ralph Waldo Emerson 2
There’s a world of difference between referring to something as either ‘social security’ or an ‘entitlement program’ — and it’s a Rhetorically charged one with political intent.
As long as we’re standing, there is no ‘neutral’ stance. What side of any number of fences we’re on when we decide to look around frames us as either liberated or ensnared. If we fail to look around, we’ll find fences erected all around us by those better equipped to build them. Our character and our conduct matter, but more than that, the Rhetoric of either matters most, as it’s what all decisions are based on, whether we’re what’s being decided on, or we’re the ones deciding.
There may even be such a thing as too much Rhetoric in politics. More specifically, advertising and mass media flood us in ways we’re still learning to swim in. Billions are spent annually to manage our well-meaning minds towards voting for and against our own best interests — so long as those interests align with and are of interest to those doing the spending. The biggest political innovations in more than a century have fittingly been data mining and targeted advertising3, which is a direct reflection of how we’ve erected our means of election, and the context it cultivates to succeed in it.
There’s never not Rhetoric in politics, however, only better or worse Rhetoric employed, and on increasingly crowded avenues.
We haven’t even had the time fully understand or appreciate the most novel of avenues for driving home political intent, despite their becoming so normal we feel no need to regulate them with the most modest of speed limits. They’ll inevitably become sanctioned by whoever wins a race, however, as increasingly, whoever best navigates them can’t help but come out ahead — so long as a Rhetor or two is guiding their way. It’d be foolish to burn a bridge that’s going to need crossing periodically, whether it be by ourselves or those we find ourselves partied with. And that situation is created entirely from the Rhetoric structurally inherent to our many political systems themselves4.
That isn’t to say all of us come out ahead in politics, even when we win. Some aspects of our political systems are entirely self-defeating for entirely Rhetorical reasons, with Rhetoric cast in the nuanced role of their cause, as well as any hope we have of prevailing over them with a solution.
Somber Seconds Spoil
The government should not be guided by Temporary Excitement, but by Sober Second Thought. — Martin Van Buren 5
Whether or not we believe that to be true, there are interesting affects on either side of it, both of which are Rhetorical issues stemming from entirely Rhetorical concerns.
Two principles behind most of our political systems that both allow them to function as well as break down are:
- Let’s talk about everything relevant before we do anything, and
- Let’s find, follow, and form a set of rules for doing that 6
As a nation grows — which political unions are founded to ensure — so do the amount of things to discuss, and our rules and regulations for having any conversation — including conversations about our systems of discussion themselves. For that reason, the natural end point of any publicly supported political body is to talk a lot and do very little, until talking is all we finally do, all while outright refusing to do anything at all. Bureaucracy is the pinnacle of democracy, not a burden to it, as we spend so much time counting our beans that we forget to cook and eat any of them before they rot, in fear of having missed a single one. That effect itself stems from the Rhetoric of many political systems themselves, and the very real affects the Rhetoric of their rules has on us. We’re only ever forced out of it when we’re jarred by real or imagined crisis, or by forcing our own feelings about that out into the open, both of which we naturally use Rhetoric to do, even when we’re merely pointing in fear to the many fires starting all around us.
Excessively somber second thinking can at times be worse than drunken haste. The latter end of that is closer to permanent excitement over an eclectic cocktail of ideas, which has its own set of issues we’ve increasingly found to our surprise that we can have alongside the former set of consequences. A growing political crisis of this kind is sprouting up all around the world, and one we’re almost unequipped to discuss because it concerns discourse itself — which as a rule, takes a great deal of Rhetorical knowledge and skill to do, despite the issue in this case being fertilized by an utter lack of those abilities.
Why Whining Is Winning Out
We participate in politics through entirely Rhetorical means — whether that be by voicing our beliefs, threatening anyone that believes otherwise, or forming rules and regulations based on either, all of which have their own tone. There’s a certain tone that’s become dominant, however, and backed by a certain brand of character best described as a lack of character.
As even a child can now project their thoughts, actions, and motivations to a world audience, it’s chiefly as children that we’ve come to do just that. We needn’t take the time to sort out our thinking, nor organize it in eloquent ways, when all we need do to be heard is type furiously in capital letters and hit ‘send’. Being provocative is accordingly given prominence because our intent increasingly isn’t anything approaching being ‘right’, or ‘correct’, and not even as humble as being ‘accurate’ or having said something of ‘substance’ — it’s simply to be heard above the incoherent rambling of everyone else doing little more than shouting in search of the same thing. The Rhetoric of that, combined with the trend of most ‘news’ giving way in favor of something more fittingly called entertainment in response to that very situation, has lead us to turn what was once a apex of our collective achievement — the rule of law — into something closer to reality TV, and equally as scripted.
If public discourse is the engine of politics, ours is progressively made of Play-Doh and puttering us off a cliff for comedic effect. As I said, there’s never not Rhetoric in politics, only better or worse Rhetoric — though even I’m intrigued by how bad it can really get before we start asking unborn babies who they’d like to elect, basing their decisions on the latest album they heard in junk-food-filled wombs glittering with ads, and casting their vote with a well-timed toot. We may as well hand our nations over to the folks running American Idol, assuming we haven’t already.
Rhetoric Relates Us
This makes communication between nations all the more difficult, as a better part of politics relies on our Rhetoric for just that.
A nation is a Rhetorically emergent idea, whether or not we’ve come to lack an ability to articulate that. We aren’t shackled together in our country’s colors in literal or metaphorical ways, but buy into or sell out of them by belief and Rhetorical participation alone. That’s getting increasingly complicated when we increasingly live stretched around the world in our relations and affiliations, and through increasingly shallow means, to the point that we feel entitled to contribute little but complaint to the nations we live in because in our own minds, we’re scarcely living in them.
Much like the VCR let us shift the time and space of when and where our entertainment can occur, ubiquitous media and communication has time and space shifted our very identities across the whole of our history and all over our planet. Some of us feel more kinship with people half way around the world, while others may as well live in the Middle Ages based on what we spend our time and attention experiencing and enacting, both of which make it very hard to rule one another when our heads are figuratively in any number of clouds precipitated by computing. We’re still living in political systems we developed to deal with tight-knit groups of ideologically similar people that chiefly relied on each other for community and identity. It isn’t that we’ve necessarily outgrown them, but that we’re growing into something entirely foreign to our political scaffolding that’s holding any remnant of that together.
Rampant and radical individualism supported by a great deal of Rhetoric and an even greater lack of understanding has led some of us to live as nations of one, which makes it progressively harder to deal with the brute fact that we’re all still very much relying on other nations to enjoy the odd Rhetorical contexts we’ve cultivated for ourselves. Even within our own nations, we’ve also become increasingly more reliant on each other, while at the same time more adamant that we’re doing anything but. As David Brooks notes of Americans in particular:
“The United States is a collective society that thinks it is an individualistic one. If you ask American to describe their values, they will give you the most individualistic answers of any nation on the planet. Yet if you actually watch how Americans behave, you see that they trust one another instinctively and form groups with alacrity.” 7
This is a wonderful example of one of the many “Machiavellian Paradoxes” of politics as I tend to call them8. Specifically here, that the Rhetoric of our principles is frequently at odds with an inherent pragmatism to our actual practices. Our political landscapes are Rhetorical battles fought over the tragic disconnect between the two that’s never reconciled on anything we’d care to discuss. Various frames of an issue that’s risen to political dialog tend to differ on favoring either principle or practice for popular support above all else, usually in service to other agendas that ride alongside it and are intended to be given less attention and reduced scrutiny by being at a lower volume in our collective conversations. This causes further problems when dealing with other nations that weren’t an intimate part of those conversations, as it makes us look like a bunch of hypocrites, which in a sense we all are and always will be on any complex political matter.
As an issue this becomes unavoidable, as when we float down from our technologically enabled solipsism from time to time, we then have to communicate with other nations, each having vastly different communication styles and cultures, let alone political systems and beliefs. When our diplomacy fails, Rhetoric’s always at the root, as what we consider humble or hostile is culturally situated, and often reflects a genuine clash of cultures themselves as their Rhetoric collides. The whole thing’s making for quite a show, and though we’re still figuring out how to deal with that, Rhetoric has and remains how we can deal at all in the political games at play — even if we decide we’re all better off folding.
For better or worse, whatever problems and virtues a political playing field will have, Rhetoric will always be at their root, our means of climbing them to ever greater heights together, and our only defense from being climbed on ourselves when they’re exploited, abused, or merely misused. It’s also how nations in a position to worry about any of this are argued into existence, and the way we’ve organized together to lift ourselves into better lives than anyone’s ever had the opportunity to lead — when well lead, and using the Rhetoric of rules as a guide.
Rhetoric’s what makes politics tick and politicians slick.
Footnotes and Citations
- Checkers speech – Wikipedia ↩
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson). (1987 Essay Collection). Quote from his essay entitled and about Politics, originally published in 1884 in his Essays: Second Series collection of essays. ↩
- For examples, see The Definitive Story of How President Obama Mined Voter Data to Win A Second Term – MIT Technology Review, How Obama’s Data Crunchers Helped Him Win – CNN.com ↩
- As I’ve written elsewhere, the very same policies and practices in different political systems can and do have widely divergent effects in that way, based entirely on how the systems themselves affect us. Every organizational structure, political or not, has its own Rhetoric, which affects us just as much, and at times more, than the results they produce. Their results are very much a part of how they are achieved. As we’ll frequently come back to, this is an example of how their style not only affects their substance, but their substance is entirely emergent from their style. Whether the rules they create differ or not, we will feel more or less invested, resistant, alienated, or united by how they’re created and enforced. This in turn affects how well they contribute to our being governed at all. It’s arguably one of the biggest influential means we politically leverage on ourselves, despite being not only unappreciated, but largely unacknowledged as existing. ↩
- Outside of the authorship, source unknown. ↩
- This pattern of finding, following, and forming rules — in that order — will be frequently taken up later on regarding how Rhetoric is actually developed and practiced in context. ↩
- Brooks, David. The Social Animal. (2011 Book) ↩
- This in one particular is an application of a policy or principle vs practice distinction I teach, applied to a line from The Prince which I find as a useful example of it. To paraphrase, “We must be idealists in our politics, and pragmatic in our actions.” Machiavelli’s work is widely misunderstood, but I’d recommend starting with this translation of The Prince if you’re interested, which includes some of the original context via commentary: The Prince: Second Edition: Niccolo Machiavelli, Harvey C. Mansfield ↩
He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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