Why Every Voter Should Carry Rhetorical Knowledge, and then a Philosophical Question

One of my favorite topics to introduce to students is rhetoric–the study of how language is used to manipulate and persuade people. It is likely a concept they’ve never heard before, and yet, a concept that they can always use. As I was researching voting selection for the primaries, I couldn’t help but armor in my rhetorical knowledge, and consider the importance of having a population of voters who can look at the influences of language on political issues.

The first part we always begin with is looking at the author’s argument: what exactly are they saying? These arguments can be explicit–ones that are directly stated, or implicit–ones that we have to infer. These arguments can be at the beginning, like a traditional thesis statement, they can be in the conclusion, or somewhere hidden in the middle (and, when I find a candidate, I feel, has no other argument than one that bashes their opponent, I’m automatically skeptical).

In rhetoric, we understand that language can be used in flippant ways. Candidates have to pick different stances and different rationales than their opponents in order to collect voters. There may be three candidates that support building more efficient public transportation systems, but each of those candidates must support a different rationale for that: one might say it will increase small business traffic, as to gain small business votes, one might say public transportation might reduce the Brown Cloud, as to gain those voters who are enticed with environmental rhetoric, and one might support the initiative in order to eventually be the first city to build a rocket off the rail systems to launch people into outer space.

Rhetoric also teaches us to look at the credibility of the speaker, and how their background impacts their present situation. People can say whatever they want–it’s super easy to construct words and policies and opinions that you THINK people want to hear, and then once you are elected into office, who cares what you promised (we, as the public, have been dooped by these misnomers many times previously). So when I have rhetorical knowledge, I know not to just look at WHAT is said, but WHO is saying it, and how that impacts their language/arguments.

(I personally always analyze the writing style of the candidate–often, you can gauge a person’s ability to think based on the way they construct their sentences, the kind of vocabulary they use, the types of words and phrases–I can always spot a deep, innovative thinker when they mix up their sentence variety, use poignant verbiage, and build in complex structures and ideas into their written communication).

What I always think is so fascinating is how politics bends towards public opinion and cultural readings–what may NOT have been a hot button issue on the last primary cycles (like gun control), through the progression of culture, now becomes an issue that, if a politician wants to win, they must have a response to–based on public pressures and public opinion. According to Bitzer’s rhetoric, we might consider this the ‘constraints’–how outside pressures influence the product. It used to be that all politicians had opinions about making marajuanian legal, but now as I look at the tickets, the hot button issues are geared more towards gun control and issues of climate change–that shows a shift in the public’s opinion, and therefore, demonstrates a constraint on the politician’s message.

Through studying argumentation, audience, speaker, and constraints, we are reminded that our modern day issues are very complicated. It is not necessarily that the politician does NOT support an increase in the minimum wage–because they certainly do see an increase in living expenses and desire people to have higher standards of living–but rather, they recognize that increasing the minimum wage will increase labor and operating costs, thus increasing prices, thus putting people back in the same position of unaffordable living expenses.

(That’s why I support rhetorical training for all citizens–if we can see through some of these issues, and we can understand how public opinion shapes candidates, then I think we can make more informed decisions–we will be able to say, “this politician is only supporting this issue because they have a long time family friend who owns this corporation”, and we will be able to say, “this person is a better fit for the job because they have this specific training”, and, “Even though I may not necessarily agree with their stance on gun control, I do think the rest of their platform is what we need in that seat”).

So, what happens when the public opinion is wrong, immoral, unjust? What responsibility do politicians have to uphold public opinion, in order to maintain favorability, but to also uphold righteousness? Like, I want to have faith in humanity, and to believe that we, as people, will always make what we think is the best decision possible, but what I think is, but what happens when we get ourselves into a situation in which perhaps the public opinion, which is fed by humans, who are corrupt, power seeking, competitive, selfish, intersects with ‘what is good and right and moral’ for all people?


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