What is rhetoric and why do we need it?

Posted on: 18 September 2017 by Dr Andrew Crines in 2017 posts

Theresa May

In this blog I’m going to defend the use of rhetoric. Why? The premise is very simple - because we need it.

What is rhetoric?

Political rhetoric carries with it the potential of driving ideological agendas, of garnering electoral success at the ballot box, and in doing so shaping the very society in which we live. Politicians of all party colours use language to promote their vision, whilst simultaneously attacking their opponents. It is, at its most basic core, a process of convincing people of an argument in order attract democratic support. The fear element of rhetoric comes in the idea that it is all a deception. This is often lobbied at those we disagree with politically. 

Politicians in House of Commons

When and where is it used?

The means through which rhetoric is communicated and engaged with has of course changed over time. During the 20th Century this process was conducted through public meetings, print media, television, and culminating in development of the internet and online forums. Some of these means created distance between the audience and the rhetorician, resulting in little or no actual process of ‘back and forth’ discussion. This allowed distance and deference to colour the kind of democratic discourse western societies enjoyed.

In my research I argue that within British politics there are three key arenas where rhetoric is used and engaged with:

  1. The Commons – this is where politicians hold themselves to account through a process of deliberative examination. It is important to note that the Commons is much more than just PMQs. The normal discussions over everyday bills is often more collegiate across the House, constructive, and also mature. PMQs, on the other hand is often a shouting match between the two Party leaders in order to win at a gladiatorial combat before the backbenchers have their turn on the PM of the day. This is very much a performance on both sides, in which everyone plays their part.
  2. The Party conference – this is very much an internal affair for each of the Parties, but rhetorically it is vital because it is here where a Party leader is expected to not only rally the troops but also articulate a vision of renewal. It is here where leaders must prove themselves. Failure to do so can be terminal as we saw with Iain Duncan Smith. But success can reap rewards as a message and image of unity travels. For example Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour speech in 2012 was commended for its brilliance. 
  3. The media - this is, possibly, one of the most important channels of communication between political elites and the voter. This is because it is the main means through which we consume political knowledge. How a politician engages with the media can mean the difference between success and failure.
    Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the media has been, shall we say, less than collegiate - whilst Theresa May’s performance with the media during the general election allowed others to cast her as detached, uncertain, even indifferent. A classic case was during the Question Time debate where she told a nurse there was no money tree. Had I been advising her, I would have told May to empathise with the nurse before suggesting they meet afterwards so she could get the full details of her case. It is how politicians react to the media that helps construct their personas.

Rhetoric represents the very lifeblood of our political process and it permeates a healthy liberal democratic society. The three main arenas represent the core means through which that process takes place, and in so doing are central to our democratic process.

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