Rhetoric - Controlling an Argument



[Note: Some of today’s posting comes from a chapter on rhetoric in Critical Voter.]


In the last posting in this series on rhetoric, I talked about rhetorical devices (schemes and tropes) that allow you make an argument appeal to the ear and eye. But what about situations when you want to control debate, rather than just enliven it?


Consider this familiar political scenario: someone is running for office and they would rather have the debate focus solely on issues that are strengths for them while ignoring issues where they are weak or vulnerable.


Sometimes such issues are unquestionably central to a political campaign and thus cannot be avoided. But candidates can choose how to talk about them.


For example, when the economy is doing poorly, an incumbent will most likely want to talk about other matters (like foreign policy) while his or her rival will want to zero in on bad economic news. But candidates can also battle over what evidence will be used to illustrate an issue.


For instance, in the 2020 presidential election, then President Trump wanted to emphasize the past and future, including how well the economy was doing before the pandemic hit with implications that it would return to strength after the crisis subsided. Unsurprisingly, his rival Joe Biden kept his focus on the present COVID-tanked economy.


Beyond matters of war, peace, and the economy (which are central in every presidential race), you also have issues that are of questionable relevance to the campaign, such as dark spots in a candidate’s personal or professional life. Such matters (often described as “character issues,” especially when partisans bring them up to cast those they don’t like in a bad light) are sometimes relevant, sometimes not, and candidates can choose different methods to try to take issues they don’t want discussed off the table.


For example, they could simply not mention those issues themselves and hope that no one else brings them up either. As you might guess, this is generally a losing strategy, especially in our media-saturated age when no one has full control over which stories become news. But you’d be surprised how many times politicians go down the route of wishful thinking.


For example, when Senator John Kerry (my former Senator) ran for president in 2004 and used his war record in Vietnam as a major campaign theme, it didn’t seem to occur to him that members of an organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (a group of Vietnam vets who had been haunting Kerry for years with accusations that he dishonestly portrayed his war record) would do everything in their power to make the candidate’s life miserable.


I’m bringing this up not to discuss the accuracy of the “Swift Boat Veterans'” charges but rather to point out the perils of wishful thinking on a candidate’s part (in this case, wishful thinking by Kerry that if he ignored his accusers, his opponents and the media would ignore them as well). You saw something similar play out in the 2020 election as each candidate avoided topics harmful to their campaigns (handling of the COVID crisis for Trump, civil unrest for Biden), hoping those stories would go away.


A variation on the wishful thinking approach is for a candidate to ignore controversies but openly state that this is what they are doing. This technique usually involves making lofty statements along the lines of “I will not dignify the matter by answering your question on such a non-issue” or “I am here to talk about the issues, not to descend into mindless mudslinging.”


While better than pretending problematical issues don’t exist, this method is also pretty poor, often making a candidate look like he or she has something to hide. As with wishful thinking, this approach ignores the fact that a candidate cannot realistically expect to control what stories the opposition or news media choose to focus on. And if a candidate is finally forced to answer questions they previously announced they would ignore, they come off as looking vacillating and weak.


One more variation on this theme takes advantage of the story-loving nature of the human brain you learned about in an earlier discussion of the brain and bias. For instance, if a candidate wants to stop a story that could harm his or her campaign from gaining traction, he or she could try to get a different story lodged into people’s brains before the damaging one takes hold.


In 2016, this technique was used by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton who, after months of struggling over what to do about a controversy generated by her use of a personal e-mail server for government business, started focusing on a new story that portrayed the entire brouhaha as a faux scandal cooked up by cadre of right-wing witch hunters. Unsurprisingly, that story played better with Democrats than Republicans and may have been seen by independent voters as a means to avoid taking responsibility for bad judgement and behavior, leading to that telltale sign of ethos failure: distrust.


Rather than choosing a rhetorical strategy designed to avoid difficult issues, better that you bring up those issues yourself—but only on your own terms.


For example, a candidate can openly admit his or her awareness that different sides of an issue exist, thus demonstrating fair-mindedness. For instance, when discussing a decision to go to war, a president can openly state that he knows this decision will be controversial but that he is ready to let history decide whether his choice was right or disastrous.


While letting history decide is a noble sentiment, in today’s media age voters are rarely patient enough to wait so long to pass judgement. In which case, a better and far more frequently used technique is procatalepsis, a rhetorical device in which you acknowledge an opponent’s position but only in order to anticipate and counter it in advance.


Some examples of procatalepsis include:


  • “My opponent will claim that I have been too eager to engage in war when peaceful alternatives were available. To which I would respond, what alternatives are open to us when the nation is attacked?"

  • “Critics will say my spending plans are wasteful and irresponsible. But who is acting irresponsibly, someone trying to move the economy forward or someone saying ‘No’ to every proposal that would put people back to work?”


The power of this rhetorical device is that it allows you to define your opponent’s arguments in your own terms and to provide a rebuttal that your opponent must react to when he or she would have preferred an attack that put you on the defensive. And even if that opponent manages to successfully reframe the point and respond effectively, he or she has still lost the benefit of surprise and novelty inherent in being first to present a line of criticism.


So those are rhetorical methods for dealing with tough issues with the potential of making you look bad, whether you are a candidate, salesperson, or parent. Flipping things around, next time we’ll take a look at rhetorical methods you can use to attack an opponent without necessarily getting your hands dirty.