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The Particulars of Political Persuasion

The Weight and Power of Ethos

My conversation partner Dr. Jeff VanDerWerff invited me to comment on “the ideal balance or proper relationship between logos, pathos and ethos.” A good challenge, sir. I do have some opinions in this regard.

First, an argument with no logos should be viewed skeptically. Logos is an appeal to our minds, to our sense of rationality. If a political speaker fails to engage our intellect through the fair use of facts, he or she may not understand an issue well enough to explain things properly. In August I attended an event with 2018 Democratic candidates. Some of them talked in such generalities that I doubted the depth of their understanding about certain issues. Others were able to provide more nuanced explanations and proposals. A shallow understanding is not something I want in my elected officials.

Another reason that a politician may fail to include facts is that the facts do not bolster his/her argument. For example, in the past state legislative session, the Iowa legislature (with Republican majorities in both houses) voted to reject federal family planning money in order to prevent any government money from going to Planned Parenthood in Iowa, an organization that performs abortions. I heard no acknowledgment that no federal money was going toward abortions prior to this change, and that the number of abortions had gone down in Iowa under the previous system. Those facts did not bolster the Republican argument.

In Quentin Schultze’s helpful book on public speaking, he argues that when we speak publicly, we define reality for our listeners. What a grave responsibility this is. Defining reality requires the use of solid information and an appeal to logic. It is absolutely unacceptable when politicians speak on a topic without understanding it. It is even worse when they lie or tailor the truth. Of course, candidates on all sides fudge the facts. See this interesting article about lying in presidential campaigns, a practice going all the way back to Adams vs. Jefferson.

I would much rather hear politicians say, “I don’t know” than guess on the facts or state an ignorant opinion. At a recent town hall with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), he was asked about all kinds of topics (some obscure), and he wasn’t afraid to sometimes answer, “I will have to look into that question. Please give your contact information and question to my assistant.”

For some of us audience members, logos is enough to shape our thinking and move us to action. But for many of us, pathos is also needed—an appeal to our emotions. Often, we listeners need narrative, quotations from people involved, or visual images to help us absorb the facts. For example, in a chapel speech this week at Northwestern College, Vice President of Student Services Julie Elliot used video clips and photos to help us think about the Charlottesville protests. Pathos helps us feel as well as think.

However, too many political speeches or political rants rely solely on pathos (e.g. Facebook posts, online comments responding to newspaper editorials). They appeal to (or prey on) recipients' fear, anger, prejudice, or self-interest. Whereas this approach often works to persuade, a speech should not be judged based on audience impact only. In my mind, the best speeches combine logos and pathos to present the speaker’s best understanding of reality.

But what I want to spend more time discussing is the mode of persuasion known as ethos. Ethos is our impression of the speaker him/herself—what we perceive to be the person’s character. Here is what Aristotle, the father of rhetoric, had to say about ethos: "Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses."

Looking at the people we have elected as our political leaders, on what basis do we judge their character? What character traits are we actually looking for?

I am very much afraid that the ethos qualities that attract us in politicians may not always result in the best people to represent us in executive or legislative branches of government. My other observation is that we as an electorate disagree about the character qualities we find admirable.

Let’s look at the contrasting ethe (plural of ethos) of the previous and current presidents. Barack Obama was generally cool and calm (especially important for a black man, unfortunately). He weighed his words. He was quick to laugh, especially at himself. His smile seemed attractive and genuine. For some people previously disengaged, Obama represented them in some way—youthful, optimistic, a person of color, someone from modest means who had worked his way up. The fact that he was running for president represented hope and change.

In contrast, Donald Trump was a celebrity star long before he made a serious run for political office. His persona as a firm, successful businessman on The Apprentice suggested to some that he could steer a big ship, like a country, for example. His no-nonsense approach seemed like the perfect antidote to D.C. stalemate: “Trump isn’t afraid to say it like it is.” And by appearing sympathetic to the electorate’s concerns (about immigrants, the corrupt political establishment, the neglect of the working class), he garnered trust and allegiance.

In the most recent presidential election, there is no doubt who was more knowledgeable and experienced in matters of state. But in my opinion, ethos, coupled with pathos, ruled the day on November 8, 2016. And now we have what we voted for.


Bellicosity vs. Generosity

Call me ignorant, but until the last couple years, I wasn’t familiar with the word bellicose.  Merriam-Webster defines bellicose as “favoring or inclined to start quarrels or wars.” It is no wonder that this word is used often in political media coverage. Here are some examples just from the past week in coverage about the North Korea missile crisis:

  • North Korea's bellicose tests have also caused alarm in neighboring South Korea and Japan. (NPR new, 9.18)
  • But on North Korea specifically, this might also reflect some concern about the president's more bellicose rhetoric tweets about fire and fury and locked and loaded, for example, some of which have been contradicted by members of the Trump administration. (NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, 9.18)


In terms of this itch to feed conflict, I also think of the series of 2016 Democratic presidential debates. The first debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Saunders were almost congenial with the candidates finding many points of agreement. As the race tightened leading up to the caucuses, Clinton, in particular, became more bellicose, feeling the need to pick a fight in order to distinguish herself from her competitor for the Democratic nomination.

Candidates must often receive “attack” advice from their consultants prior to debates. In a debate held on Northwestern College’s campus between incumbent Representative Steve King (R-IA) and challenger Christie Vilsack (D) on September 27, 2012, Vilsack jabbed at King whenever she could. This focus on King’s foibles rather than articulating her own positions may have put off the many independent voters trying to decide whom to support. On the other hand, King’s continual incendiary rhetoric about immigrants has caused even Republicans to shake their heads at his coarseness and seeming lack of compassion.

The opposite of bellicose may be generous, as in generous of spirit. JVW’s response to my first post would be an example. Even though we are on opposite sides of the aisle, he still looked for points of agreement. A politician with this spirit will look for commonalities, ways that legislators in different parties can work together.

Sadly, an ethos of generosity does not seem to be widely admired at this time in our country’s history. There is common ground, but few dare to venture there. For example, why can’t pro-life and pro-choice acknowledge that we all want to see fewer abortions? Why can’t the “our” in “our streets” refer to African Americans, store owners, the police--the entire community? Some Republicans lashed out against Trump when he met with Democratic leaders about DACA. How dare he negotiate with the other side. But we should be able to pass bipartisan immigration reform that values both humanitarianism and the rule of law. Congress was close to doing just that prior to 9.11.

Can a person with a generous spirit (e.g. JFW) get elected in this climate? I am skeptical, but I would like to see more people with this ethos try. Whether we are running for office or not, we can try to arrest the bellicosity and instead present a generosity of spirit that comes through in so many stories about Jesus (his response to the adulterous women, his words to the robbers on the cross, his welcoming of children, his inclusion of tax collectors). It’s crazy how this first-century man still has so much to teach us in our 21st-century world.

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Reader Comments (1)

But on North Korea specifically, this might also reflect some concern about the president's more bellicose rhetoric tweets about fire and fury and locked and loaded, for example, some of which have been contradicted by members of the Trump administration.

February 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Lena

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