What Are You Reading…On Political Rhetoric

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Democratic and Republican national conventions have now come and gone, taking with them the pomp and circumstance that accompanied both. While a lot was said, it is notable that very little of it had to do with policy or procedures for governance. At issue were the values that define the candidates and parties. Trump emphasized a return to law and order while criticizing Clinton for being weak, and Clinton highlighted inclusiveness while attacking Trump for his divisive tone and dangerous attitudes (primarily towards women and minorities).

What constantly fascinates me about political pageants like these is how rhetoric is marshalled to produce identities, behaviors, and certain social orders. It is for this reason that I find Melania Trump’s plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech thought-provoking, for it doesn’t just illustrate how Americans “share the same values” (Ben Carson’s response) but how political dialogue in this country is carried out at such a level of abstraction that more than a few of the speeches given at each convention could be spoken at the other with only minor adjustments. Much of what constitutes these conventions is done for aesthetic and stylistic, rather than substantive, purposes.

This raises the questions of what role rhetoric does play and should play in our lives. Some argue, as Neil Postman does in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that political rhetoric is more about entertainment than enlightenment nowadays. Yet even within the pessimistic picture Postman paints, there is room for dissidence and novelty. To understand how rhetoric can best be used for our purposes, it is important to return to the beginning of the study of rhetoric and look at examine the applications it has to the contemporary world. Below are some notable books and papers that take up that question.

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