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<nettime> my humble analysis of rhetoric in the elections
David Balluff on Thu, 13 Jan 2005 14:34:37 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> my humble analysis of rhetoric in the elections

any feedback is appreciated (ballud AT rpi.edu)

War of the Words
David Balluff

The 2004 Presidential election, full of spectacle and sensationalism,
reveals much about contemporary media, politics and rhetorical speech
in the United States. The paucity of substantive debate during this
election cycle is in itself illuminating - both candidates were handled
more as brand names rather than political candidates vying for the
Presidency. In this paper, I will take a look at some of the narrative
themes running through the election cycle, and provide a historical
context for the ways in which rhetoric was used by both the candidates
and others.

In American politics, John F. Kennedy is widely credited with being our
first media savvy President. His ability to use television successfully
in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates contrasts dramatically with Richard
Nixon, who many viewed as sickly and uncomfortable in front of the
cameras. Reagan too had a telegenic quality that served him well as
both an actor and statesman. However, political campaigns in recent
years have become hyper-mediated events, ever-present on TV, radio,
print and the web.

Although the internet as a medium has only factored significantly in
the last political campaign (Howard Dean's ability to raise money
online nearly gave him the Democratic nomination, and John Kerry's
citing of his web address during the debates was also a first), the
impact of the internet and information technologies in the American
cultural sphere has been felt for over a decade. Modern campaign
managers now find themselves having to adapt not only to the internet
as a new advertising medium, but also as a forum for public discussion
and a vehicle for fundraising.

As a consequence, the primary emphasis in modern political campaigns
has been on controlling the message by a mixture of tight message
coordination between local, state and national groups and by
customizing the candidate's message based on regional or demographic
data -- very similar to how a multi-national corporation might handle 
product's marketing campaign.

Newt Gingrich, the architect of the 1994 "Republican Revolution",
states in a 1996 GOPAC memo1,  "Language is listed as a key mechanism
of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude
and Learning." He provides two lists of words as an aid for politicians
and activists, one labeled "Optimistic Positive Governing Words" - used

to define a campaign and vision of public service, and "Contrasting
Words" - used to define their opponents. In the 1980's and 1990s, Karl
Rove, who has a background in direct marketing, "would typically begin
a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral
history of a particular office, charting where the votes for each
candidate had originated, and which groups had supplied them."2

Political campaigns are now adapting persuasive techniques typically
used in advertising. Campaign managers are adept at framing their
candidate's actions in the best possible light in much the same way
that advertising executives strategize about commercial products.
Marketing has become so intertwined with contemporary politics that we
barely notice anymore.

With this in mind, I'd like to begin my analysis of the Presidential
debates by looking at the historical foundations of persuasion,
beginning with Aristotle's treatise, On Rhetoric.  The book is divided
up into three sections; Books I & II are devoted to an analysis of
rhetoric, while the third section is more of an examination of
rhetorical techniques. Aristotle considers rhetoric to be a close
counterpart to dialectic, and situates rhetoric as a public form of
dialectical affirmation or refutation in this last section.

Although Aristotle considered dialectic and rhetoric to be closely
related, dialectic argumentation, he states, "proceeds by question and
answer, not, as rhetoric does, by continuous exposition."3  Therefore,
rhetoric is concerned with the logic of an argument itself only insofar
as it is persuasive. Dialectic is concerned with the facts themselves,
with less emphasis on their delivery.

In the first two Books of his treatise, Aristotle identifies three main
types of rhetorical persuasion; those derived either from the character
of the speaker (ethos), the emotions awakened by the speaker (pathos),
or by the logical argument (logos) itself.

For the purposes of this paper, I consider these three categories to be
most concerned with message presentation and delivery. The modern ethos
is concerned with the speaker as a brand, and what that brand
represents. Emotional manipulation, or pathos, is ever-present in
modern culture - the filmic "tear-jerker" is but one example. And since
these three categories are primarily concerned with the speaker as a
rhetorical agent, logos is concerned more with the methods of
argumentation rather than the logic of the argument.

In terms of public speech, Aristotle divides rhetoric into three
categories (species): deliberative, judicial and epideictic. These
relate to the audience primarily, not the speaker, and have a temporal
quality. One is either exhorted or dissuaded, according to Aristotle:
asked to deliberate about future actions. If one is asked to adjudicate
by a speaker, the argument is either an accusation or a defense of past
actions. However, the epideictic category is more concerned with the
qualities of the speaker or an action -- the assignation of praise and

These six categories (the three "types" and three "species") of
rhetoric serve as an analytical foundation for this paper, but before I
delve into the election itself, I would like to update these categories
by bringing in ideas from contemporary scholarship, aided by a
hypothetical presidential candidate, Mr. Haden White.

Let us assume that Mr. White is a veteran, and worked as a lawyer at a
reputable law firm for twenty years before being elected to a number of
state offices. He's currently married with two sons, a U.S. Senator,
and is seen as being a populist by residents in his state. His campaign
manager in past campaigns has emphasized his military service and his
role as a political reformer with a good deal of success. Now we know a
little about his character, or ethos, and how he's been positioned as a

Since this paper is concerned with the influence of marketing in
politics, the thoughts of David Ogilvy, one of the more influential
figures in American advertising, are germane. In his 1983 book Ogilvy
On Advertising, he emphasizes the importance of brand image and brand
positioning. He defines positioning as "what a product does, and who it
is for,"4 while brand image is equivalent to a product's personality.
In Mr. White's case, he is portrayed as a strong military man, a father
and a populist, and this sets the stage for an emotional response, or

Ogilvy also stresses the importance of using images with "story
appeal," as they attract far more attention than average.5 He cites a
successful campaign for Hathaway shirts in which he placed an eye-patch
on a dapper model, lending an air of mystery and intrigue to the brand.
Our hypothetical candidate can thus be photographed with his sons and
be seen as authoritative or nurturing. Historical shots of Mr. White in
uniform evoke bravery, pride and patriotism. And when our candidate
gives a speech, he is able to call upon his image as a father and
soldier to evoke these emotional responses from the audience.

This brand positioning serves to insert an actor into a pre-existing
narrative framework, according to George Lakoff, a Professor of
Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at
Berkeley, and author of the groundbreaking Metaphors We Live By. More
importantly, one effect of this positioning is that we tend to
subconsciously associate other characteristics from the same metaphor
with our hypothetical candidate, even if these characteristics have
never been explicitly addressed by the campaign.

Since fathers in popular culture are commonly portrayed as protectors,
bread-winners and authority figures, by placing White within this
framework, his campaign manager now has far less work to do in
convincing voters. He can focus on presenting Mr. White as a father,
and the metaphor takes care of the rest.

In 2004, Lakoff published Don't Think of an Elephant, a small tome that
expands on ideas in Metaphors We Live By, but geared specifically
towards countering conservative arguments. Lakoff argues conservatives
have an advantage in terms of their use of metaphor and framing, and
that to be competitive, progressives must learn how to re-frame issues
to their advantage. He introduces framing as
	"mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a 
     result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the 
     way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our 
     actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and 
     the institutions we form to carry out policies."6

As an example, Lakoff points to overarching metaphors within the 2004
Presidential elections, focusing specifically on the "strict father"
vs. "nurturant parent" frames that inform the Republican and Democratic
candidacies respectively. His assertions about framing echo Aristotle's
logos: the way in which an argument is made is as important as the
words themselves.

The "strict father" frame is not exclusively the domain of Republicans,
nor is the "nurturant parent" model specifically Democratic or
progressive. If it were, we would be discussing caricature, and not
metaphor. Lakoff contends that "just about everybody in American
culture has both models, either actively or passively,"7 and that
people may use both models, but in different parts of their lives. As a
consequence, both candidates use or activate these frames in speeches
with the intent of persuading voters on the opposite side, as well as
shoring up support amongst their base.

However, as a frame, Republicans find the "strict father" model
particularly useful since it reinforces and justifies conservative
policies. Lakoff asserts that this model begins with a set of
assumptions; that "the world is a dangerous place, and it always will
be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also
difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winner and
losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are
born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not
what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good."8

The "nurturant parent" model, in contrast, is gender neutral, for "both
parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The
assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The
world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that."9 To
Lakoff, nurturing means empathy and responsibility, with progressive
values like transparency, community-building and fairness stemming from
this model.

In terms of our Mr. White, he falls more into the "strict father" model
by virtue of his emphasis in previous campaigns on military service,
but he can also activate the "nurturant parent" model by talking about
his children or about political reforms that he has undertaken. He may
even activate both models within the same speech, and since these
metaphorical frames are largely subconscious, they don't seem

So far, I have focused on how Lakoff's frames can be used to reflect
certain values back onto a candidate, but it is a much more powerful
(and Orwellian) tool when used to promote issues. One only needs to
look at recent Republican legislative initiatives (Clear Skies, Healthy
Forests, No Child Left Behind) to see that the GOP has achieved a level
of mastery of this technique.

If our hypothetical candidate has voted as a Senator in favor of the
Healthy Forests Initiative, or the Clear Skies Act,  his opponent will
have to spend extra time convincing voters why the Clean Air Act is, in
fact, bad for the environment, whereas Mr. White's campaign can hang
their hat on a feel-good symbol that needs no further explanation.
According to Lakoff, "in cognitive science there is a name for this
phenomenon. It's called hypocognition -- the lack of the ideas you 
need, the lack of a relatively simple fixed frame that can be evoked by a
word or two."10

These techniques have been around for a while, though no one has used
them with more success than Karl Rove, Bush's chief campaign
strategist. The term "liberal activist judges" is a Rovian frame dating
back to his work on judicial campaigns in Alabama in 1994. In his
article on Rove for the November 2004 issue of the Atlantic Monthly,
Joshua Green quotes a former Rove staffer who explains that "the term
"activist judges" motivates all sorts of people for very different
reasons. If you're a religious conservative, he said, it means judges
who established abortion rights or who interpret Massachusetts's
equal-protection clause as applying to gays. If you're a business
conservative, it means those who allow exorbitant jury awards. And in
Alabama especially, the term conjures up those who forced
integration."11 It is important to note that regardless of the
interpretation, this frame intentionally elicits emotions of fear and
anger from conservative voters.

Consider the Republican use of the term "tax relief" instead of the
more commonly used "tax reform." By reframing the debate on taxes as
one that calls for relief instead of reform, Republicans can conjure up
assumptions that taxes are a burden, and that anyone who is against
reforming the system is somehow contributing to additional taxpayer
misery. Of course, this belies the point that taxes do pay for
necessary infrastructural costs, defense and education, among other
things, but as a way to manipulate public opinion, it is a highly
potent re-framing of the issue. Superficially, no one is going to vote
against "relief", and every time the phrase is used by politicians or
reporters, it reinforces an ideological point of view that favors

According to Lakoff, Republican efforts to reduce taxes are an example
of a "strategic initiative," or "a plan in which a change in one
carefully chosen issue area has automatic effects over many, many other
issues."12  Since reducing the amount of income from taxpayers places
financial burdens on future government budgets, "tax relief" paves the
way for the "privatization of Social Security" (one of the few liberal
frames), and necessitates drastic cuts to Medicare, education and
social services.

Another contemporary example of framing used by Republicans is tort
reform. Again, Rove's past actions are instructive: while working in
Alabama, Rove demonized Democrats as lawyers' lap dogs by publicizing
outrageous verdicts. He focused on a case where a doctor from the
wealthiest part of the state was awarded $4 million when his BMW was
repainted due to acid rain damage prior to delivery. He had his
candidates use terms like "jackpot justice" and "wealthy
personal-injury trial lawyers" to enflame public opinion against
lawyers and Democrats alike.13

Lakoff also points to tort reform as a strategic initiative, since
Democrats historically tend to get more campaign contributions from
tort lawyers than Republicans do, and in one stroke of the pen,
"reformers" can get rid of all kinds of onerous regulations for the
chemical industry, coal companies and pharmaceutical companies.
Furthermore, he suggests, tort reform for conservatives means getting
rid of an individual's right to sue corporations, or at the least,
capping damages in judgments. "What the conservatives are really trying
to achieve follows from enacting the proposal. They don't care
primarily about the lawsuits themselves. They care about getting rid of
environmental, consumer, and workplace protections in general. And they
care about de-funding the Democratic Party."14

As I mentioned earlier, Aristotle noted that public speeches about
past, present and future events utilize different categories (or
species) of rhetoric. As an organizing principle, I have structured my
analysis of the 2004 elections in this section accordingly.

Rhetorical speeches about past actions either accuse or defend, and
focus on whether an action is just or honorable, according to
Aristotle. However, Ogilvy makes a salient point in regards to
marketing, which is that it is often better to appear "positively good"
rather than asserting one's superiority over a competitor.15

Many pundits remarked during this election cycle that it seemed as if
Americans were once again debating Vietnam, both because of the
parallels to the war in Iraq and also due to the candidates' past. The
issue of whether or not George W. Bush received special treatment in
the National Guard has dogged the President since his days as Governor
of Texas. John Kerry, on the other hand, served honorably in Vietnam,
but later became a very public and outspoken opponent of the war.
Attacks on Kerry over the summer of 2004 by the Swift Boat Veterans for
Truth were extremely effective, and all but neutralized Kerry's lead in
the polls going into the Republican National Convention.

The tactical differences between the two campaigns are significant.
Bush was able to run a fairly positive campaign while dismissing
accusations of nepotism as "old news", whereas Kerry had to attack Bush
directly while simultaneously fending off unsubstantiated charges from
an "independent" group. While Bush had a ready frame (old news) to use
against attackers, Kerry had a problem with hypocognition, and had to
resort to long answers to defend himself and his past actions.

If one looks at Cameron Marlow's linguistic analysis of the first
debate, which focused on foreign affairs and Iraq, Bush used the phrase
"free Iraq" fourteen times and "hard work" thirteen. In contrast, Kerry
mentioned Saddam Hussein and North Korea fourteen times each, and
mentioned his frame, "War as a last resort" only nine times.16 The
phrase itself is ill-fitting as a metaphorical frame, since Kerry voted
for the use of force in Iraq, and he never adequately explained how
America's war in Iraq was not a "last resort" scenario.

Although many consider Bush's campaign to be more negative, Bush the
candidate was much more optimistic in his defense, and Kerry more
pessimistic in his accusations. Bush was also more successful at using

terms which either activated metaphorical frames or reinforced a
positive image of himself. Bush's repeated use of the phrase "hard
work" in the debates, while awkward, reinforced the assertion that
Bush, no matter how unpolished, was doing a difficult job.  Kerry's
phrase "a different set of convictions" only works in contrast with
Bush. He failed to define himself as anything but in opposition to the


In looking at future events, a speaker either exhorts his audience to
adopt his or her viewpoint, or dissuades against a competing point of
view. Ultimately, the audience is asked to deliberate on whether a
particular action will increase or decrease their happiness. In looking
at the presidential debates, it is noteworthy that Bush used the word
terror far more than Kerry.17 Since terror and terrorism are such
emotionally evocative words post 9/11, fear of possible future attacks
in the voters' minds only serves to benefit Bush, since the President
seemed more confident about preventing future attacks. Kerry was unable
to make a strong case that voters should fear the President and his
policies more than an attack.

Furthermore, Kerry's assertion that Bush's foreign policy has made the
U.S. less safe is problematic. Aristotle states that "the defendant
always has an advantage over the prosecutor when refuting probability,
since the prosecutor demonstrates by probabilities and since it is not
the same thing to show in refutation that an argument is not probable
as to show it is not necessary, what is for the most part true is
always open to objection; for otherwise it would not be for the most
part and probable, but always and necessary."18 Without any significant
terrorist attacks post 9/11, it is difficult at best for Kerry to prove
his assertion, whereas Bush's defense hinges on the absence of renewed

Epideictic rhetoric is related to the present, and the assessment of
praise and blame. Much of this is related to the perception of the
character of the speaker, for, as Aristotle notes, "fair-mindedness on
the part of the speaker makes no contribution to persuasiveness,
character is the controlling factor in persuasion."19 And epideictic
rhetoric is less concerned with specifics than either deliberative or
judicial rhetoric, relying on the exposition of general traits and

In contemporary politics, politicians are primarily defined (praised)
by legions of spin doctors and image consultants who manage photo
opportunities, write speeches and release upbeat talking points to
members of the press corps. In the case of George W. Bush, his campaign
situated him as a war president, flying onto aircraft carriers and
delivering (albeit fake) turkey to the troops in Iraq. He was
alternatively presented as both stern and nurturing - activating both
metaphorical frames and thus, appealing to a wider segment of the
population. Though widely ridiculed as a "fortunate son" and a "moron,"
these attacks didn't seem to have much of an effect on his image with
core Republican voters.

John Kerry, too, was presented as a military man. Much was made of his
medals for bravery and his duty to his country. At the Democratic
National Convention, he took the stage and said that he was "reporting
for duty," though the frame evoked by that phrase suggested a loyal
subordinate rather than a commander-in-chief. Hampering his campaign's
efforts to portray him as a strong military figure were ads placed by
the Swift Boat Veterans as well as his own activities as an anti-war
activist upon his return from Vietnam. Together, they sowed doubt and
confusion about Kerry's character. Was he a loyal military man or a
disloyal hippie? Swing voters and moderate Republicans were more likely
to believe the SBVFT than Kerry, since the attack was coming from
other, presumably loyal veterans.

Of course, this analysis of the 2004 electoral cycle is based in part
on the generous assumption that votes accurately reflected the will of
the people -- exit polls and statistical probability be dammed. The
Republicans do have an edge in terms of their use of framing and
metaphor, and the Democrats have a lot of catching up to do, both in
terms of re-framing key issues and in terms of lost time. Conservatives
started putting together think tanks and institutions in the early
1970's, and they are much better funded than their liberal
counterparts. "In 2002 four times as much money was spent on research
by the right as by the left, and they got four times as much media
time,"20 Lakoff reminds us.

George W. Bush is perhaps the first American President with his own
corporate logo - the "W," and in this respect, the difference between
politics and brand-name advertising has all but disappeared. No wonder
so many people find politics distasteful and uninspiring.


1) 	Newt Gingrich, 1996 GOPAC Memo,

2)	Joshua Green, "Karl Rove In A Corner" Atlantic Monthly, November
2004, p 100

3)	Aristotle, On Rhetoric, translated by George A. Kennedy, 1991,
	Oxford University Press, London. p.26

4)	David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising, 1983, Crown Publishers, 
Inc.  New York. p. 12

5)	ibid, p. 22

6) 	George Lakoff, Don't Think Of An Elephant, 2004, Chelsea Green
Publishing, VT. p. xv

7)	ibid, p. 21

8) 	ibid, p. 7

9)	ibid, p. 11-12

10)	ibid, p. 24

11)	Joshua Green, "Karl Rove In A Corner" Atlantic Monthly, November
2004, p 100

12)	Elephant, p. 31

13)	Joshua Green, p. 92

14)	Elephant, p. 30

15)	Ogilvy, p. 19

16)	Cameron Marlowe,
http://overstated.net/04/10/01-presidential-debate-analysis, 2004

17) 	Marlowe. In the first debate, Bush mentioned terror or terrorism
22 times to Kerry's 19, in the second debate, Bush: 16 times to Kerry's 8. 
In the final debate, Bush: 7, Kerry: 5.

18) 	Aristotle, p. 212

19) 	ibid, p. 26

20)	Elephant, p. 16

The end product of democracy is freedom, of oligarchy wealth, of
aristocracy things related to education and the traditions of law, and
of tyranny self-preservation.

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