The Dangerous Vacuity of Our Public Discourse


Our failure to engage in substantive political debate can tempt us to write our opponents out of the political community.

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Some foreign-policy conservatives will, no doubt, be troubled by President Obama’s recent commencement address at West Point. The speech has been received, and appears to have been intended, as a repudiation of President Bush’s approach to international affairs. That approach, Obama and his supporters believe, was characterized by an excessive and risky unilateralism. While there might be merit in such a concern, Obama’s critics have good reason to fear that he is prone to the opposite error. His speeches and actions over the last year suggest that the current administration prefers multilateralism, not merely as one tool that the prudent statesman must be willing to use, but as the necessary result of a fundamental ideological commitment: a belief, not supported by much evidence, that international disputes are largely the effects of misunderstandings, which are best dispelled by conciliatory communication rather than exertions of—or credible threats to exert—power. The West Point commencement address can only add to these concerns, which deserve a full public debate.

Obama’s speech, however, points to an even deeper danger to American republicanism than that posed by weakness or naïveté in foreign policy. This danger resides not only in the president’s mind, or in the dispositions of his administration, but in our very political culture. The danger I have in mind is illustrated by the utter vacuity of the West Point address, which in turn reflects a general argumentative emptiness in our political discourse.

Aristotle, in his great work the Rhetoric, distinguishes between two kinds of political discourse: epideictic rhetoric and deliberative rhetoric. Epideictic rhetoric is essentially ceremonial. It seeks to identify and praise certain persons or ideas in light of the community’s commonly held beliefs about what is good and bad, noble and base. Deliberative rhetoric, in contrast, is about choosing a course of action. It articulates the policy ends upon which citizens generally agree and then makes the case for the means best adapted to those ends.

Much of Obama’s West Point speech—about the first half—is given over to epideictic rhetoric. He praises the cadets and teachers for their dedication, the parents for their support, and the American military in general for its honorable traditions of courageous service. There is, of course, no shame at all in this. Ceremonial rhetoric is perfectly appropriate to a commencement address. Moreover, all political leaders, and especially those who occupy the highest offices, must make use of ceremonial rhetoric. Binding the community together through the affirmation of shared principles is no less an important task of the statesman than discovering and publicly defending specific actions that should be taken. Accordingly, some ceremonial speeches are considered to be among the greatest examples of excellent political rhetoric. Here we may call to mind Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. Such efforts demonstrate Lincoln’s mastery of epideictic discourse, while his speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and his First Inaugural show his no less impressive skill at deliberative rhetoric. In the former addresses Lincoln praises America for the justice of its principles and praises certain Americans for their heroic commitment to them. In the latter he identifies problems that confront the country and explicates the reasons for particular courses of action.

The problem with Obama’s West Point speech, then, is not that its first half is so ceremonial, which is in fact perfectly appropriate to the occasion and to his duties as a leader. The problem is that the second half of the speech aspires to be deliberative rhetoric but fails to do so. And, of course, there is a long history of presidents offering substantive foreign policy arguments in commencement addresses. Obama aims for this, but misses terribly.

President Obama begins the second half of his speech by promising a foreign policy “strategy.” This is essentially the language of deliberative rhetoric. After all, the aim of strategy is to identify certain achievable ends and then discover the means best adapted to realizing them. Immediately after recognizing the need for a strategy, however, the president veers back in the direction of ceremonial rhetoric, praising Americans for their ability to surmount challenging circumstances. He reverts to such themes, in fact, at several points in the remainder of the speech. Along the way he does, admittedly, speak of the ends and means of his policy. The apparent ends he identifies are American strength and influence and a more peaceful and prosperous world. The proper means to these ends, he suggests, are such things as economic vitality, an active diplomatic corps, effective collaboration among intelligence agencies, and a willingness to cooperate with other nations.

The problem with Obama’s speech is that the means he identifies are just as non-controversial as the ends. If it is serious, however, deliberative rhetoric must engage what is controversial, because the possible means to given ends are always more or less subject to doubt and disagreement. There would be no need for deliberation, after all, if what is to be done is obvious. Recall Lincoln’s most excellent deliberative rhetoric. That rhetoric clearly took the form of an argument with others about important disputed questions, such as whether federal policy should forbid slavery in the territories (the Lincoln-Douglas debates) or whether disunion was a legitimate and prudent response to deep divisions over slavery (the First Inaugural).

What is at stake here, however, is not just a deficiency in the current president’s (or his speech writers’) rhetorical skills. Rather, the reception of the speech points to a deeper public pathology. For, as noted above, the speech has been received in the media as an important policy speech, as a call for a specific policy, as an act of deliberation. One fears on the basis of such a reception that our public culture itself is marked by an inability to recognize, much less object to, the absence of deliberative reasoning in a president’s policy speech. Indeed, the easy invocation of non-controversial—and hence unhelpful—ideas is to be found in much of our political discourse.

This tendency is a serious problem for at least three reasons. In the first place, we cannot entirely discount the possibility that such empty rhetoric truly reflects our leaders’ empty thinking about political problems. We are tempted to think otherwise, to believe that deliberative rhetoric (or at least deliberation) must be taking place in the cabinet if not on the stage. That is, we are tempted to believe that our public officials have engaged in a rigorous argument about the proper means to desired ends in private with their advisors, but that they choose not to present that reasoning in their public speeches. This is certainly a possibility, but not one on which we can absolutely rely. After all, political leaders—and especially presidents—are often surrounded by advisors who are already predisposed to agree on what is to be done, who are ideologically inclined to a certain set of policies over others. In such an environment it is all too likely that genuine deliberation will not take place because everyone will believe that the solutions to public problems are obvious. In this case, policy speeches that avoid deliberation are reflections of a prior failure to deliberate. Needless to say, this exposes the nation to all the risks of policy error and miscalculation.

Second, and on a deeper level, such non-deliberative political speech undermines our ability to meaningfully live out our commitment to representative self-government. Public political speech is the vehicle of democratic deliberation. If that speech is void of genuine argumentation, then democratic deliberation and self-government itself will be a mere show. Representative self-government requires that the people get to choose the basic direction of the country. They cannot truly choose, however, unless public political speech is marked by genuine argument that identifies and examines the various means that might be employed in public policy. If it instead takes the form of mere affirmation of non-controversial ideas, then the campaign for political power will take the form of a contest to see which party or which politicians can most enthusiastically and convincingly affirm ideas on which everyone already agrees. Such a contest cannot foster rational choice, because it cannot bring to light the actual alternative policies from which our leaders will have to select. Such rhetoric renders the process of winning public approval completely unrelated to decisions made while governing. As a result, it seriously attenuates the sense in which the people can be said to be governed by their own consent.

Finally, the prevalence of empty political speech strikes indirectly at the public affection that holds the political community together. By invoking and implicitly praising only non-controversial concepts, such empty deliberation comes to resemble ceremonial rhetoric. It does not seek explicitly to explain the usefulness of certain policies but implicitly to celebrate their value, as if that value were beyond reasonable dispute. We see this all the time in politicians’ claims to stand for “common sense solutions.” In reality, however, politics—or the choice of proper policy means—is by its nature inherently controversial, no matter what anybody says about it. Accordingly, there will inevitably be dissenters from whatever set of policies a leader chooses to celebrate rather than to defend. Such celebratory rhetoric, however, inevitably implies that those who dissent are bad people. The implication of such speech is not that those who disagree have reasoned incorrectly about possible means to agreed upon ends, but that they have chosen to reject things that are (supposedly) commonly recognized as valuable. For their part, in the absence of the discipline of deliberative rhetoric, the dissenters will be unable to explain the miscalculations of their opponents, but will have to resort to the invocation of other (supposedly) common values, thus implying that the other side does not recognize them. Simply put, the effect of ceremonial rhetoric is to bind the community together around a set of shared principles. Therefore, to substitute ceremonial rhetoric where deliberation is appropriate tends to imply that those who disagree are not members in good standing of the community. And this marginalization of dissenting voices is not conducive to our political vitality.

We too often associate the word “argument” with confusion, weakness, and division. On that contrary, if our public policy is to be effective, if our commitment to self-government is genuinely to be lived out, and if our sense of community is to be preserved, we need not to avoid but to insist on public argument, properly understood as the pursuit of deliberative rhetoric in its proper sphere.

Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.

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