Rhetoric and flattery

Bryan Garsten, Yale professer of Political Science, wrote a book in 2006 on rhetoric — Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment — and in it said this:

Aristotle argued that when citizens sat as jurors, they listened with an ear for gratification . . . and let their own feelings of pleasure or pain . . . distort their judgment. He accused jurors of wanting to be charmed by charismatic speakers.

Professor Garsten contrasted Artistotle’s disdain for rhetoric that aimed mainly to flatter the decision-makers — the ancient Greek deemed it the “judicial” kind — with his greater faith in “deliberative” rhetoric.

How did they differ? As Professor Garsten explained:

What seems to have led a deliberator to guard against succumbing to irrelevant appeals in this account was that he was considering matters that affected his own interests. Having his own good at stake exerted an influence on the direction of his thought, perhaps acting as an anchor pulling him back to the matter at hand, as a standard against which he could easily measure the worth of various arguments and feelings, and as a motivation to pay attention. Because he was an interested party, a deliberator applied his interest as a criterion in making his judgments, basing his judgments on his determination of what was good for him.

The presidential debate

On the eve of a high-stakes presidential debate, the dichotomy between judicial and deliberative rhetoric raises a question about what the debaters should aim for — flattery or substance?

Professor Garsten offered more than a hint over the weekend in an op-ed he wrote for The Wall Street Journal. The Journal titled it “The Sad State of American Debate”.

Professor Garsten started by noting that the “forum itself is flawed” as a means for debate of substantive issues. In the balance of the piece, he explained that the impending face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will “float free from the pressures of our governing institutions” and will therefore fail to produce something that “is actually a part of self-government.”

What does that imply about the debate? It suggests that the true merits of concrete policy choices will get little play precisely because the debate involves more of a judicial setting than a deliberative one. If voters perceive that their votes have no direct effect on their “own good”, their choices will likely depend much more on the candidates’ ability to flatter, charm, gratify, make irrelevant appeals to, and evoke feelings of pleasure or pain in the audience.

What to look for

When you watch the debate tonight (or snippets of it later when analysts chew it over), consider whether and how much the candidates adopted a strategy of flattering voters. Did they assure the voting public of its greatness, whether inherently as true Americans or as a result of their willingness to strengthen the American experiment through diversity? Did they project respect of and express affection for some or all of their fellow citizens? Or did they parse the objective merits of particular policy choices?

In Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Napoleon’s friend Pedro ran a long-shot campaign for Class President against cheerleader Summer. After Napoleon wowed the class with a dance routine, Pedro ended his speech with this:

Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true.

(Pedro won.)

If Pedro’s pitch sounds familiar, Professor Garsten has reminded us, it’s hardly new.