Fighting rhetoric with rhetoric

An author who appears to be in transition one way or the other (it’s hard to tell) provides a salutory lesson in how NOT to do it:

As Movement Conservatives consolidated their power in the Republican Party their appeal became more and more emotional and less and less rational. By the time of the George W. Bush administration, it no longer reflected, as one of Bush’s advisers put it, the “reality based community.” But, like any other myth, its lack of reality made it more emotionally powerful than ever. The good guys are pure and virtuous, and they are under attack: Christianity is under siege in a country that is 70 percent Christian, for example, and those who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are fighting to kill the big government that gives “subsidies” to lazy black people despite the fact that they themselves have received subsides — and one of the occupiers an outright loan. And the bad guys are really bad. Donald Trump has famously asserted that Mexican immigrants are rapists, and his attacks on black Americans are so inflammatory that the Ku Klux Klan uses them as a recruiting tool. Indeed, all Democrats are demons: Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina has asserted—all evidence to the contrary—that Democrats support Planned Parenthood because they want to kill babies and sell their body parts. The emotional punch of these allegations stays with supporters despite the fact they are false.

The national triumph of this Movement Conservative narrative explains the present political moment. Republican leaders who were previously focused on consolidating voting blocs now face two very real voter insurgencies. On one hand, those like Ted Cruz argue that rank-and-file voters feel betrayed because Republicans have not actually shrunk the government. Cruz promises to see that destruction through. On the other, Trump voters have absorbed the racism and sexism in his candidacy and are following it in pure rage. Cruz and Trump have a clear narrative. Republican Party leaders do not.

But, like Republican insiders, establishment Democrats have also suffered for lack of a narrative. The Movement Conservative story has made America a hostile place for minorities, women and those falling behind economically. Democratic voters are angry at leaders who have stayed largely quiet as the government has befriended Wall Street, gutted the middle class, slashed social programs, and endangered their health. While Clinton still works to line up narrow voting blocs, Sanders offers an alternative: a narrative of America that gives Democrats a national vision to counter that of Movement Conservatives.

Voters on both sides are angry, and neither cares much what the political establishment says, especially an establishment that on both sides is notably white, elitist and male—aside from Clinton’s refreshing candidacy– and clearly has no idea what life looks like for those outside its bubble. If establishment figures want to regain leadership, they should try articulating a narrative for their vision of America, a narrative that lets voters choose a direction for their country.

Until then, they are preaching to a choir that has lost its audience.

 The Rhetorical Test:

  1. Is this rhetoric, dialectic, or pseudo-dialectic?
  2. What is the most effective way to refute it? 
  3. Why is this likely to be ineffective?