Thursday, 8 November 2012

Classical Rhetoric and the 2012 Presidential Debates

Well, now that the election is over, a rhetorician can finally show his face in public again ;) It is nice to be able to comment on rhetorical ability and strategies again without someone suspecting that you are trying to tip the scales in favor of a candidate.What I thought I would do is to take some observations about rhetoric made by classical rhetoricians like Aristotle, Cicero, and Isocrates, and show you what they would say about the 2012 Presidential Debates, which had a greater impact on an election than any debates maybe since Kennedy vs. Nixon.

One of the first rhetorical elements which became evident as I was watching the first debate was the concept of stasis, which can be roughly translated in English to "stance." Whenever you want to make an argument, you can only really take 4 stances, or stages where you debate the issue: 1. fact, 2. definition, 3, quality, and 4. place, appropriateness or procedure. To show how this works, let's take an example of an argument: Mr. X is missing, and you have been charged with his murder. You are looking for a way to defend yourself against this allegation, so here are your options.

1. Fact. You can argue that we don't actually know that Mr. X is dead, and therefore we cannot prove it is a fact that a murder has even been committed! There is no body, no witness which saw that he died, it is not a proven fact that Mr. X has indeed died.

2. Definition. But what if his body has been found? It makes no sense to deny that it is a fact that he has died, but is it murder? It could be an accident, and as such would not be murder but manslaughter. Perhaps it was actually suicide, and you just happened to be close by. Perhaps he was reaching for his gun, and you just got to yours first, so it was self-defense and not murder.

3. Quality. If it has been established that Mr. X did die, that you were the one who killed him, and it does in fact fit the definition of murder, then the next level is quality. How serious, important, good, or bad is it that Mr. X was murdered? Perhaps Mr. X was a horrible man, with the blood of many innocent people on his conscience? Was Mr. X in fact Hitler? Was the situation one where his death could prevent the death of many other people? Perhaps he was abusive, and you just couldn't take it anymore? This is one where some of the most interesting court room dramas plays out, since the law generally states that anyone who murders shall die or at least be severely punished, but human reality is more complicated than that. This is where the "insanity" or "temporary insanity" plea often comes in.

4. Place, appropriateness, or procedure. The former stases (plural of stasis) all argue within the same context or parastasis, but this one seeks to reframe and resituate the entire argument, to recast it in a new light if you will. This can be something as simple as a technicality (mistrial, wrong procedure, etc.) or something which moves the entire argument to another sphere. One example could be, "Yes, Mr. X was murdered, I murdered him, it was a terrible thing that he was murdered, but I have diplomatic immunity and as such cannot be convicted by this court." It could also be that Mr.X was a terrorist, and as such his death was a casualty of war and not punishable in criminal court. In fact, it is not even a crime. Perhaps you are guilty, but the procedure and punishment the prosecutor has asked for does not fit the crime (Cruel and Unusual Punishment).

Let's now see an example from the First Presidential Debate. The issue is Dodd-Frank, the Financial Regulation law which was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Obama.

Obama defines his argument with the rhetorical question "does anyone think we got into this mess because there was too much regulation of Wall Street?" By so doing he sets his stance (or stasis) on 3. Quality. His argument is "Regulation was urgent, necessary, and a good thing for America." Fact could argue whether or not he signed it, and it is well settled that he did, Definition could be what Dodd-Frank is, and one could say "a government take-over of the financial industry" vs. "government oversight of a reckless industry." However, Romney seeks to reset the argument. Rather than arguing against regulation, which was clearly what Obama expected, Romney takes his stance on 4. place, appropriateness, procedure: He argues that regulation is essential and needed, but that the procedure applied by Obama was flawed and not appropriate to address the issue. Suddenly, the issue is no longer regulation is good vs. regulation is bad. Rather the issue becomes whether Dodd-Frank was the right kind of regulation to address the challenges revealed by the economic meltdown. This of course is a different question altogether, and it clearly takes Obama by surprise.

Romney's approach to Obama's arguments by shifting the stasis of the argument is a common thread throughout the debate, and it is one of the reasons why Romney won that debate quite decisively. As Otto Alvin Loeb Dieter writes in "Stasis," "To mistake, or misjudge the category of the stasis might seriously jeopardize a representation from the beginning." Obama argued points Romney already had conceded, and so it was Romney who was able to make the points and take the stance that stuck. The Obama campaign later painted his comments (such as "regulation is essential for a marketplace") as a fundamental shift to the middle by Romney, and sought to paint him as a flip-flopper, but actually Romney was only echoing the stance he takes in his book, No Apology, which came out in 2009. Obama was expecting to meet the same talking points he had heard in the Republican Primary, but instead he met a more nuanced and pragmatic approach from Romney.

This debate reset the race to one which, if it hadn't been for hurricane Sandy, may have made Mitt Romney the next president of the United States. Almost overnight, the carefully cultivated advantage Obama had held since June in the polls slipped away.

OK, that's all for this blog post. More to come later!