Democracy, Language, and Rhetoric

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Democracy, Language, And Rhetoric1

“Democracy, Language, and Rhetoric” is a legitimate and important topic. However, upon confronting it, one initially encounters at least three formidable complexes of questions. Here’s an inventory of the issues that I see:

First, what do we want to learn about rhetoric and language in democracies? Are we inquiring what democratic rhetoric is? Are we curious about the ways in which language works in democratic rhetoric? For example, are we asking whether democratic institutions shape language, or vice-versa, whether language molds democratic practice, perhaps as argued by Foucault? Are we looking for an ethical theory of the uses and abuses of rhetoric in democracies? Do we seek to discover the most effective techniques of rhetoric in democracies? Do we hope for an account of the types of rhetoric found in democracies? Do we expect to find democratic determinants of rhetorical behavior?

Second, what counts as a democracy? Athens, with its slaves, either before or after Pericles, or Sparta with its helots, kings, ephors, and citizen assemblies? Rome when it had its senate, popular comitia, and tribunes, up to Augustus? Great Britain from the Magna Carta or the establishment of the House of Commons or one of the expansions of the suffrage? Florence when the Medici family was briefly out of power? Guild-ruled cities of the Hanseatic League? New England colonies and towns? The United States since 1789? Jacobin France? Weimar? The People’s Republic of China? Contemporary European Union countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Singapore, and Russia? If any of these polities are “real” democracies, why so? Are they nevertheless different types that need diverse treatment?

Third, if we wish to understand rhetorical behavior in democracies, with “democracy” as an independent variable, does some general essence of “true democracy” correlate with types of speech in any and every kind of democracy, such that rhetoric is similar across all democratic forms? Does every democratic structure have its own dependent variables, its own varieties of rhetoric? If one of both of these options hold, are democratic institutions the chief independent variables that predict the sorts of rhetoric displayed or do they share the stage with several other factors, such as a human nature that produces the same rhetorical behaviors under every government; the “language instinct’ of Pinker;2 levels of virtue and vice in populations; cultures; Dryzek’s dicourses;3 religions; secular philosophies and ideologies; tribes; class structures with their conflicting interests and false consciousness; ethnic compositions; levels of education of politically relevant groups; the histories of communities, with emphasis on the recent gratifying or traumatic experiences of their members, and the relative strengths of polities, along with their statuses as hegemonic imperialist states, victims of aggression, or felicitously benign and secure entities?


An adequate analysis of democracy, rhetoric, and language would have to examine all these questions plus more that I undoubtedly have overlooked. To begin the investigation as helpfully as my time permits, I should like to touch briefly on a few of the questions that concern me, mapping out some appropriate ways forward. I’ll start with a definition of rhetoric offered in Plato’s Gorgias (452e): The art of rhetoric is “the ability to persuade with speeches.”4 The Platonic Socrates especially looks at speeches about public affairs.

If we are interested in an ethical theory of the uses and abuses of rhetoric, it would be well to look into additional matters analyzed in Gorgias. First of all, we need to specify what we mean by “persuasion.” Should the rhetorician strive to produce commitment to knowledge demonstrated to the audience or persuasion in the sense of the creation of belief without knowledge? It seems that, ideally, the speaker would aim to demonstrate facts and scientifically necessary conclusions that no one could deny. However, this is an impossibility, for two reasons. No one could convey adequate information about complicated issues to masses of people in the heated political situations that usually prevail. (This was made abundantly clear, for example, in the health care reform debates in the United States in the years 2009-2010.) Also, politics is about prudential problems and resolutions that are contingent rather than necessary. Therefore, the rhetorician’s only alternative is to attempt to move audiences toward belief without knowledge. This seems to place all speakers on ethically shaky ground. What could justify efforts to stimulate poorly founded belief?

This problem entails other issues in Gorgias. About what should a speaker inculcate belief without knowledge? Justice and virtue? Economic endeavors? War? Education, with reference to its purposes, content, and means? Social welfare? Should the beliefs that the rhetorician intends to generate be true or is it permissible that they be false? To what end should a speaker create beliefs? To lead to common action that is both just and advantageous to the community? Or to achieve the ends commended by the rhetoricians in Gorgias, personal aggrandizement and expansion of the power and dominion of one’s class or polity?

Aristotle, in his Art of Rhetoric (1404a1-8), also identifies an ethical dilemma, having to do with style, or diction.5 He laments that one must pay attention to this subject, not as being right, but necessary: “As a matter of right, one should aim at nothing more in a speech than how to avoid exciting pain or pleasure. For justice should consist in fighting the case with the facts alone, so that everything else that is beside demonstration is superfluous; nevertheless, [style] is of great importance owing to the corruption of the hearer.” In other words, rhetoric ideally would be an exercise in which one purely rational person addresses other purely rational people with purely rational arguments but this rarely or never happens because most human beings are to some degree corrupt.

Aristotle’s position on this point needs some Platonic explanation, if not amendment. We must consider the meaning of “rationality.” In Phaedrus, Socrates tells a beautiful myth about the pre-existence of human souls. Prior to birth, the souls are winged and float in an ether in which they attempt to ascend to visions of the Essence Really Being. Many do not succeed in rising to this height. At birth, they are incarnated in the persons of tyrants, sophists, and other unsavory types. Some do get glimpses of the supreme reality. The souls that enjoy this highest vision are incarnated in the persons of philosophers, musical individuals, and lovers (247c-248e). These three groups are equally guided by nous, reason, and they are equally virtuous. They approach human problems from different perspectives; philosophic, musical-artistic, and emotional. They can be said to have philosophic rationality, musical rationality, and emotional rationality.

Their rationality is defined not by some capacity for analytic logic – this is a modern, Cartesian concept of rationality – but by their attunement to the ground of being that is the source of order in human affairs. Another expression of this mythical insight is Socrates’ comment in Republic that only souls that have exited the cave – by means  that somehow are the opposite of geometric, analytic reason (511a-d) – and beheld the vision of the good can act wisely or prudently (517c), which is to say rationally.6 Therefore, when Aristotle decries rhetoric that excites pain and pleasure instead of appealing to reason, he should be understood to mean (or he should be corrected to mean) that it is illegitimate to use rhetoric to excite pains and pleasure that do not take their cues from attunement to the ground of being, goodness, and justice. Rhetoric that stirs up rational (in the Platonic sense) pains and pleasures would be perfectly fine.

This understood, in Aristotle’s view the corruption of most people results in efforts to persuade by arousing the pains and pleasures connected with the irrational passions, or what St. Augustine of Hippo calls the amor sui, the love of self to the exclusion of the higher love (amor Dei) demanded of human beings. This arousing is done with speaking styles that appeal to appetites and passions such as fear, paranoia, hatred, greed, and price. Philosophic, musical, and loving rationality, if ever present, have poor prospects when these illegitimate passions are raging sot the rhetoricians who might be capable of the true rationality feel forced to play on the amor sui of their audience. But what excuses that?

We might tend to assume that the solutions of these problems are obvious. We might argue that attempts to create belief without knowledge are proper in the service of noble causes because good ends do sometimes justify some distasteful means. Further, rhetoricians should always educate audiences to the demands of justice and virtue in all matters under consideration, be they economic, military, or social. They should always advocate just acts. Beliefs that they inculcate should always be true. I waver: are lies that further good ends allowed? Some, like Leo Strauss, say yes.7 Speakers should propagate the true or false but salutary beliefs for the greatest human good, not for personal aggrandizement, and not in support of vicious plans to trample on individuals, classes, and people. Stirring up pains, pleasures, and the appetites associated with the irrational passions is justified in the defense of rationality when audiences are too far sunk in passionate corruption to be able to think and feel in proper attunement with the ground of order in human affairs.

These easy answers are beset by five difficulties, the first two of which are fundamental and prior to an inquiry into the ethics of rhetoric in democracies. First, Nietzsche claims that there are no moral facts. If he is right, my ethical questions are nonsensical. If he is wrong, we must establish the validity of speech about the good. At its best, does such language reflect a reality other than will to power, selfish interests, and pitiful delusions? If so, what are its grounds and what does it mean? I think that the finest treatments of these problems are Plato’s Republic and Symposium and the works of Eric Voegelin, especially Order and History with its theory of symbolic forms and Anamnesis and its account of indices of non-objective reality. Plato and Voegelin instruct us that authentic reports of good and evil arise from experiences of the soul that can only be symbolized. The meanings of such speech consist solely in references to ineffable inner events that order the psyche. They are prone to misunderstandings that reify their terms. This theory of ethical language makes it dependent on real spiritual experiences, not on political arrangements.

Second, if Nietzsche is mistaken, we still have to contend with Machiavelli, who ostensibly recognizes a true moral order but argues that a prince who strives for goodness in all things quickly finds himself ruined. Leaders must resort to evil deeds and lying words intelligently to avoid both personal catastrophes and summum malum, the destruction of their communities. After all, how moral could it be to let ethical scruples bring about the greatest immorality of all, the annihilation of one’s people? If Machiavelli is right, we must bracket morality and democratic rhetoric in separate compartments, regarding the latter as a mere problem of technique. If he, together with Nietzsche, is wrong, so that the good overrides potentially adverse consequences, we must learn why. We see that the ethical study of rhetoric in democracy must begin with the great questions of philosophy.

Third, if Nietzsche and Machiavelli are mistaken and ethical perspectives are necessary, is it possible for speakers to know the truth about contingent affairs or to see facts dispassionately when their interests are at stake? Could they propagate true beliefs even if they wanted to do so? Fourth, how does one calibrate the morality of appeals to irrational passion in the cause of rationality? How far may this go? Fifth, how does the usual depravity of politic bodies affect our theorizing? I believe that these three problems have to be addressed before we can usefully follow Gutmann and Thompson in their quest for a regularized procedure of moral political debate, the practical possibility of which they seem to presuppose.8

Rhetoric in Athens and America

The depravity issue leads to the other topics I should like to discuss here: a combination of queries about types of rhetoric generally found in democracies and most effective techniques of democratic rhetoric, as seen in an ethical light. I shall confine my remarks to examples taken from classical Athens and modern America. The need for brevity also forces me to restrict myself mostly to speeches of leaders, the available sources from all quarters being virtually infinite.

Democratic rhetoric has not always been corrupt. Some prominent American leaders have employed what we might judge to be ideal forms of rhetoric successfully. My standard of ideal here is Aristotle’s comment (Politics 1280b): “Whoever takes thought for good government . . . gives careful attention to political virtue and vice . . .Virtue must be a care for every city.” Speeches of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln have demonstrated such care and their words were more or less effective, the civil war triggered by Lincoln’s election notwithstanding. In my lifetime, speeches of FDR and Eisenhower have shown this concern effectively too, and Obama has been trying to meet their standards. For example, in his First Inaugural Address, Washington taught that:

“There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.”

In his Farewell Address, he warned against the animosities of party politics. He reminded citizens that public opinion must cooperate with government, and particularly that “there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant,” and he pleaded for “a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.”9 Jefferson, in his First Inaugural, advised everyone to “unite in common efforts for the common good,” insisted that majority rule be “reasonable” to be right, and urged Americans to “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are dreary things.”10

Lincoln incessantly proclaimed the evil of slavery while urging prudence in the fight against its spread. In his Second Inaugural, he counseled soon to be victorious northerners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”101 Addressing Congress in 1941 about his decision to arm the British, Roosevelt proclaimed his four freedoms and opposed Hitler’s “new order” with “the moral order.” Accepting renomination for the presidency in 1936, he promulgated a generous principle of domestic policy: “Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”12 Eisenhower’s address to the United Nations in 1953 was a humble expression of respect for its members and an appeal for a negotiated peace in the atomic age, not a rant bristling with bluster and threats.13 In his Inaugural Address, Obama declared that: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the  choice between our safety and our ideals,”14 and he has tried to restore civility to political discourse. All good rhetorical moments, I think. Unfortunately, democracies ancient and modern too often manifest types of rhetoric that are effectively persuasive but detrimental to the common goods of their polities and mankind. I shall cite some illustrations.

If we consider the domestic affairs of democracies, we find that the polities that have been called democracies oscillate throughout history between rule that favors the rich and upper middle classes and rule that favors the lower middle and poor classes. Aristotle (Politics 1280a) observes that justice is always discussed in these polities but never without oligarchical or democratic biases. The oligarchical and democrats, acting as judges of their own cases, which never turns out well, invariably conceive of justice in ways unfairly partial to themselves. In Aristotle’s day, the rallying cries were “inequality for unequals” and “equality for equals.” Aristotle notes that each of these slogans is true in a sense, for unequals and equals with respect to virtue deserve different degrees of influence, but they are not true in the senses intended by the speakers. In our time, we can find defective ideals of justice implicit in speeches of many American presidents, for example, those of Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, he said:

“The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In the present crises, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem . . . It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment . . . It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.”15

 On the other side of the coin, when Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted his party’s renomination for the presidency in 1936, he described the causes of the world depression by remarking:

“Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise . . . For too many of us the political equality we once had was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us, life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men no longer could follow the pursuit of happiness. Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal on only to the organized power of Government.”

Like the ancient bromides cited by Aristotle, these presidential comments certainly contained elements of truth. This is one of the characteristics that made them effective; all rhetoric must have enough verisimilitude to be plausible to target audiences, However, we also recognize in Reagan’s and Roosevelt’s statements the language of class struggle and stimuli that tremendously inflamed the passions of combatants. Reagan’s platitudes covertly encouraged the desires of the rich to quash all redistribution of wealth; Roosevelt’s attack on the “great machine” expressed the hopes of the poor to initiate serious leveling. All too frequently, democratic rhetoric succeeds because it articulates the wishes of one class or another in ways that disguise them as high principle.

Further, although the presidential remarks had their elements of truth, they also distorted the facts of complex situations by oversimplifying them. All troubles were falsely laid at the doors of government and oligarchical cabals. Effective rhetoric in democracies too often errs or lies by explaining vicissitudes entirely in bumper-sticker and sound-byte terms usually involving evil systems and machinations. It seems to me that this practice is becoming even more widespread than it used to be. Both Reagan and Roosevelt appealed to the democratic value of liberty in manners that stimulated audiences to feel oppressed. Rhetoric in democracies regularly is effective because it convinces people that they have been denied basic rights and freedoms. All these tactics militate against the common good by keeping the class struggle at fever pitches, stoking the fires of resentment, and analyzing problems in manners that work against rational solutions. I should add that it is not only leading politicians who employ these devices. In America today, we have a surfeit of talk radio and cable TV hosts on both sides of the spectrum who make fortunes by using simplistic, scurrilous talk to peddle rage without ceasing. They do our country great harm.

Self-Congratulatory Rhetoric

Another malignant trait of rhetoric in democracies, or at least in those that are hegemonic posers, is that it tends to be self-congratulatory. This is what causes Socrates in Gorgias (464b-465a) to define rhetoric as a branch of “flatter” that “dangles the pleasant as bait for folly.” The funeral Oration of Pericles is an ancient example of this. Among other things Pericles said that the Athenian form of government was a model for others, that Athenian greatness enabled the city’s citizens to enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, that Athenians were superior to others in courage, virtue, talent, and elegance, that Athens went around the world doing good, and above all that Athenian imperialism was praiseworthy:

“Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting monuments of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.”17

Next let us see what some American presidents have had to say, especially in the years after World War II, after our country became a superpower. We shall encounter language similar to that of Pericles, except that it takes on a Christian chiliastic flavor. This millenarian bent was introduced to American rhetoric by Joh Winthrop on the Arabella as the Puritan ship neared New England. He argued that, if the colonists kept their Covenant with God:

“. . . the Lord will be our god and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truthe then formerly wee have been acquainted with, wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that see shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us . . .”18

Now listen to Ronald Reagan, who already has told us that America is “this last and greatest bastion of freedom,” as he gives his Farewell Address:

“The past few days, when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit about the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase come from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man . . . I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life but I don’t know if I’ve ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with all kinds of people living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity . . . That’s how I saw it, and see it still. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that; after two hundred years, two centuries, and still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’ still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom . . . “19

Next, let us hear the less lyrical but no less fervent songs of Bill Clinton’s Inaugurals:

“Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths. And American have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people . . . Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our renewal. [First Inaugural].”

It is our great good fortune that time and chance have put us not only at the edge of a new century, in a new millennium, but on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs…We must keep our democracy forever young. Guided by the ancient vision of a promised land, let us set our sights upon a land of new promise…And what a century it has been. America became the world’s mightiest industrial power; saved the world form tyranny in two world wars and long cold war; and time and again, reached out across the globe to millions who, like us, longed for the blessings of liberty. Along the way, Americans produced a great middle class and security in old age; built unrivaled centers of learning…America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation. Once again, our economy is the strongest on earth. [Second Inaugural].20

We see here the same themes that we found in Pericles. Americans are flattered that they have the finest country on earth, a country that all others are obliged to emulate. They are freer than any other people. They are more virtuous, talented, and elegant than all others. They enjoy the highest standard of living in the world. They go around the globe doing nothing but good. However, they also have granite strength, irresistible power. All this is heightened by the chiliastic fervor that makes America the promised land, almost a New Jerusalem.

These sorts of speeches are effective because people like to hear such praises and promises. But how do these flatteries militate against the common good of their polities and mankind? With regard to the field of international affairs, one of the greatest conservative thinkers of the twentieth century, Gerhart Niemeyer, laid the ground work for answering this question. He said: “Let us begin by driving the myth of ‘a city upon a hill’ to its logical conclusion: A nation considering itself as the definitive model and destiny of all mankind cannot really have a foreign policy, chiefly because it places itself in a class of one, distinct from all other nations., Its stance must be one of pointing to itself as a self-explanatory message.” Niemeyer went on to point out that, before the Carter administration, the building of the United States Information Agency had engraved over its portals the motto: “Telling America’s Story Abroad.” Niemeyer interpreted this motto as a symbol of our self-understanding: we thought of ourselves as the only country that had a story to tell. He warned that: “Only two types of foreign policy are compatible with this self-understanding: Isolationism (no so-called entangling alliances) and wars in the spirit of crusade (‘to make the world safe for democracy’).”

Niemeyer’s analysis implies that the self-images of Athens and America were and are directly detrimental to world peace in two ways: First, they have rendered the two democracies incapable of conceiving of themselves as anything other than saintly, incapable of supposing that their actions are anything other than right, and, hence, incapable of sensitivity to grievances of other nations that might have some justification. This, along with the arrogance of their proclamations of themselves as the epitomes of mankind, has inspired hatred. Second, the reduction of American foreign policy options to isolationism and wars in the spirit of a crusade has had inevitable effects, leading to our withdrawal from world affairs that helped Hitler to power and causing recent fiascoes that I need not discuss in detail here. The reduction of our diplomacy to “telling America’s story abroad” also has produced a record of inept statesmanship. I cannot refrain from citing the typical example of George W. Bush’s effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslins by sending Karen Hughes abroad to say: “I am a mom!” somehow, this and all similar initiatives have failed to impress the people who despise us for the injuries they think we have inflicted on them.

On domestic fronts, the self-flatteries of democracies have created unrealistic expectations that life should always be easy, that nothing should ever go wrong, and, in the Christian setting, that some sort of end-state of heavenly prosperity is just around the corner. But things always go wrong. When the deluded expectations run afoul of hard realities, the long years of self-congratulatory rhetoric eventuate in explanations of difficulties and disasters in terms of intentional wrong-doing, with the result that internecine strife invariably breaks out.

Democratic Paranoia

This brings up a third troublesome characteristic of democratic rhetoric. In times of stress, the democratic orators tend to fall into destructive fits of paranoia. Here is Pericles recommending war against the Spartans, in response to a largely justified ultimatum:

“Athenians, . . . I am against making any concessions to the Peloponnesians . . . It was evident before that Sparta was plotting against us, and now it is even more evident . . . They prefer to settle their complains by war rather than by peaceful negotiations, and now they come here not even making protests, but trying to give us orders . . . And finally they come to us with a proclamation that we must give the Hellenes their freedom . . . If you give in, you will immediately be confronted with some greater demand, since they will think that you only gave way on this point through fear . . . It would still be slavish to give in to them . . .We must realize that this war is being forced upon us . . .”21

Note the chief features of this paranoia: We have an enemy. The enemy is always scheming against us, intends to bleed us dry. The argument that this is not the case at all, that the enemy only wants a redress of grievances that might be negotiable, is not entertained. The probability that the enemy is in no position to bring about our destruction is not considered either. The enemy is implacable, will never stop pressing us until…what? This is left to the imagination. The prospect, whatever it is, makes it impossible to contemplate negotiations with the enemy. Besides, for macho men, it would be unmanly to yield to bullying. We are compelled to opt for war. The logic is closed.

For our modern example, let us take George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war:

“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long . . . [O]ur struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.”22

“Above all, our principles and security are challenged by outlaw groups that accept no law of morality and have no limit to their violent ambitions . . . And our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime is a grave and gathering danger.”23

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”24

Of course, we also must remember the famous warning uttered by one or more members of the Bush administration on Sunday morning talk shows: “We do not want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Observe the features of this paranoia: We have an enemy. The enemy is forever scheming against us, intends our annihilation. The arguments that this might not be the case, that one of the parties classified as the enemy has often proclaimed a host of sometimes imaginary, sometimes real grievances against us that might admit of amelioration, and that the other party classified as enemy and slated for attack is neither the same enemy who attacked us nor any kind of threat at all, are not entertained. There is no willingness to negotiate, no willingness to permit United Nations inspectors time to continue their search, no openness to the possibility that weapons of mass destruction have not been found because there are none to find. The threat is imminent and there must be war now! The logic is closed.

Need I ask how this paranoia has been inimical to the common goods of the democracies and mankind? Pericles’ paranoia destroyed Athens and precipitated the greatest catastrophes of the ancient world. Bush’s paranoia needlessly destroyed thousands of lives and wrecked the American economy. The full extent of the consequences is not apparent yet. Lest it should be thought that I blame only the leaders here, let me hasten to add the democratic populations are easily stampeded into paranoia. The Athenians were convinced by Pericles. Modern American examples abound too., Near the end of the Civil War, white southerners were convinced that Lincoln meant to exterminate them. Lincoln was incredulous: he could not believe that anyone subscribed to such an absurdity.25 Popular support for Bush’s war was overwhelming. Also, for decades we have had “black helicopters.” In the recent debate over health care reform, we have had “death panels.” In the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we have had environmentalists blowing up the drilling ship to prevent additional offshore drilling. Talk show hosts and even congressmen exacerbate such fears.

The last destructive feature of democratic rhetoric that I need to mention is related to the paranoia. Especially in Christian settings, democratic rhetoricians tend to conceive of their wars as eschatological battles of Armageddon, in which the saints are besieged by Gog and Magog, with the stakes being annihilation versus the advent of a heavenly end-time. We already have seen Gerhart Niemeyer’s citation of Woodrow Wilson’s concept of World War I as the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” Now let us hear George W. Bush one last time:

“Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life . . .We are in a conflict between good and evil . .  And finally, America stands for more than the absence of war. We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace, by replacing poverty, repression, and resentment around the world with hope of a better day.”26

“Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.”27

“This is not the threat that I see. I see a global terrorist movement that exploits Islam in the service of radical political aims – a vision in which books are burned, and women are oppressed, and all dissent is crushed. Terrorist operatives conduct their campaign of murder and with a set of declared and specific goas – to demoralize free nations, to drive us out of the Middle East, to spread an empire of fear across that region, and to wage a perpetual war against America and our friends. These terrorists view the world as a giant battlefield – and they seek to attack us wherever they can . . . The terrorists do not merely object to American actions in Iraq and elsewhere-they object to our deepest values and our way of life.”29

“So, it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”30

 What is frightening to me is that these apocalyptic descriptions of the stakes in our present wars and delusional proclamations of our policy objectives sound perfectly rational and sane to the American ear. Millenarian rhetoric has become second nature to us. This has had, and will continue to have, the destructive consequences that we see all around us.

So, what can be done to move American political rhetoric toward its ideal forms and away from the flawed ones? I think that this will require more than proposals for ethical political debate. What is needed is a thorough reform of American education that makes us aware of the nature of the real world that we inhabit. We need to learn that the common good is prior to personal goods; that our country is only one like others and not the city on a hill, not the model and destiny of all mankind; that the United States cannot become the New Jerusalem; that the grievances of enemies should be considered and redressed if and when legitimate before we rush to war, a task that would have to begin with some ability to detach our self-judgments from our irrational passions; that not every enemy is demonically and implacably plotting our ruin, and that not every war is the battle of Armageddon that will end evil forever. These lessons will be hard sells because we have been taught otherwise since Locke and Winthrop. I do not look for the needed reform to be carried out soon.31



1 Delivered at the Fifth Annual Tanner Symposium, “Democracy, Language, and Rhetoric,” January 22, 2010, Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Symposium, Jim Harrison, Lee Trepanier, Mark Button, Rick Avramenko, Kirk Fitzpatrick, Rachel Kirk, Bryce Christensen, and Michael Minch, for comments that helped me improve this paper.

2 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York; Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1994). A book read by all the participants in the symposium.

3 John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Global Politics: Discourse and Democracy in a Divided World (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006). A book read by all the participants in the symposium.

4 In this paper, Plato is cited in text with Stephanus page numbers. Citations are to Plato, 12 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, Multiple dates of publication). Gorgias, vol. iii. Phaedrus, vol. i. Republic, vols. V-vi.

5 In this paper, Aristotle is cited in text with Bekker page numbers. Citations are to Aristotle, 23 vols. (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, multiple dates of publication.) Art of Rhetoric, vol. xx99. Politics, vol. xxi.

6 For further elucidation of this problem, see Eric Voegelin, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. xii, Published Essays 1966-1985 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).

7 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1952).

8 Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided in Politics, and What Should Be Done about It (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). A book read by all the participants in the symposium.

9 George Washington, “First Inaugural Address” and “Farewell Address,” in My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America’s Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, ed. Michael Waldman, (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc. 2003), 6, 11-13.

10 Thomas Jefferson, “Inauguration Address,” in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Adrienne Koch and William Peden, (New York: Modern Library, 1944), 321-325.

11 Abraham Lincoln, “With Malice toward None: Second Inauguration Address,” in The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, Richard N. Current, ed., (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1967), 316.

12 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The Four Freedoms: 1941 Message to Congress” and “A Rendezvous with Destiny: Acceptance Speech for Renomination” in My Fellow Americans, 116-117, 108.

13 Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace: Address before the UN General Assembly,” in My Fellow Americans, 147-152.

14 Barack Obama, “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” retrieved from The White House Blog,

15 Ronald Reagan, “government is Not the Solution to Our Problem; government is the Problem: First Inaugural Address,” in My Fellow Americans, 247-248.

16 Roosevelt, “Rendezvous with Destiny,” 106.

17 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1954), 145-146.

18 John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Puritan Political Ideas:1558-1794, ed. Edmund S. Morgan, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp. 92-93.

19 Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” retrieved from American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank,

20 Bill Clinton, “First Inaugural Address,” retrieved from,

21 Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 118-123.

22 George W. Bush, “Commencement Address, West Point, June 1, 2002.” All speeches of George W. Bush quoted in this paper are retrieved from Presidential, The Presidency of George W. Bush,

23 Bush, “Remarks to the United Nations, September 12, 2002.”

24 Bush, “State of the Union Address, January 28, 2003.”

25 Lincoln, “Letter to Major General McClernand, January 8, 1863”, in The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, 244.

26 Bush, “Commencement Address, West Point, June 1 2002.”

27 Bush, “Commencement Address, West Point, June 1, 2002.”

28 Bush, “Remarks to the United Nations, September 12, 2002.”

29 Bush, “Transition in Iraq: Primetime Address from the Oval Office, December 18, 2005.”

30 Bush, “Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005.”


This was originally published with the same title in Political Rhetoric and Leadership in Democracy, Lee Trepanier ed. (Southern Utah University Press, 2010)

James M. Rhodes

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James M. Rhodes (1940-2015) was Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Marquette University in Wisconsin. He was author of The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution ((980) and Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (2003), both winners of the Alpha Sigma Nu Award. His posthumously book is Knowledge, Sophistry, and Scientific Politics.