The Tea Party and Aristotle's Rhetoric

Ace accuses the Tea Party of being hostile to considering popular opinion in their positions. For this reason, he considers them "a movement not of politics but of political philosophy." His criticism is not for their beliefs, but rather that their insistence on ignoring popular opinion naturally limits their power, and he wants them to be politically powerful, to maybe even replace the Republican Party.

I have seen first-hand what Ace is talking about. I was one of the organizers for a local Tea Party group, but after the rest of the leadership insisted on ideological purity rather than getting results, I left the movement. To be fair, they thought ideological purity would get the results they wanted. However, while I am sympathetic to the idea that one man and the truth are a majority, elections don't work that way. I could (and still can) see some ways in which Tea Party concerns are shared by the base of the left, and if we could frame things the right way, and cut some deals, we could achieve some important objectives.

Compromise, especially with the left, was not interesting to the rest of the leadership. They wanted all or nothing, believing they could get it all if only they were pure enough. They saw the left as very real enemies who could not be dealt with. Although it was never said, I got the impression that compromising with leftist groups, even if it got results we wanted, would sully the movement and should be disdained. We had to win by outright defeating them; that was the only acceptable answer. Completely outnumbered and believing that to be a destructive, unreasonable attitude, I decided to leave.

In two ways I see this as a failure of rhetoric. First, I was not able to convince them of my position. I knew what I believed, and I still believe the organization I was in would have gotten better results from my methods, but I wasn't able to reach the rest of the leadership. Second, the Tea Party itself has done a very poor job of persuading America of its positions, and its poor use of rhetoric has made it easy for the statist media to label it extremist, and even conservatives who should be sympathetic to attack it.

Since then, I have begun to appreciate the value of rhetoric, as Aristotle conceived of it. Aristotle sees the skilled rhetorician as someone who, in any given situation, knows what would be persuasive. Like the exercise of military power, the exercise of political power depends on momentum. The important thing is to get a mass of people, all at roughly the same time, who support your goals enough to give you power (money, work, votes, etc.), not the purity of that mass's beliefs. In order to build momentum, you need to persuade disparate groups of people that they would rather support your movement over any other that they might have sympathies with. Skill in rhetoric is essential for that.

Aristotle believed that the best use of rhetoric was to persuade people with the truth. A number of other ancient Greeks had written about rhetoric, but Aristotle linked it to logic and dialectic by proposing the enthymeme, a form of syllogistic reasoning, as the basis of rhetoric. A popular audience could not be expected to follow a long train of logical or dialectical reasoning, so the enthymeme was a simpler, looser form of logic. For that reason, some look down on the enthymeme -- it accepts conclusions that a stricter logic would not. But the questions of society are often not amenable to strict logic: there are too many unknowns, or there simply are no accepted truths about a topic from which to form a first premise. It is in these gray areas where the strictest logic cannot get very far that rhetoric can be quite useful.

The main objection to adjusting the Tea Party's rhetoric as well as to compromising with leftist groups is lack of trust. The reason the Tea Party became a necessity in the first place is a long series of betrayals by allegedly conservative politicians. This is a valid point, but I believe the answer is in honesty, not a demand for ideological purity. A rhetorically sophisticated Tea Party could have been, and could still be, much more influential than it is without compromising its ideals. I think the key to that is to be completely honest with everyone all the time about what the movement and its leadership are doing.

Instead of having a hidden agenda, like the left, the Tea Party should declare its goals openly, and then work toward achieving them in stages. Sometimes that might mean allying with political opponents in order to achieve a small step forward. The way to do that and not be a sell-out or look like one is to be honest about what is going on, put it all up on the net, and be willing to walk away from alliances that do not advance the goals. When the rank and file ask, 'why are we working with those dirtbags in the Occupy movement?', the leadership can honestly reply with the specific, previously stated goal they are working together to achieve, why the temporary alliance is valuable, and of course by pointing out that the alliance is temporary: as soon as we achieve X, we'll go back to fighting them. There are times in war when two mortal enemies agree to a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, or another form of cooperation that benefits both sides. If the Tea Party insists that such a thing is treason, then it has chosen to be of very limited effect, and very possibly part of the problem.

Being part of the solution doesn't mean picking your hill to die on, not for an American. Our way is to let the other side die for their beliefs, whether literally or figuratively. Our way is to win, and winning requires effectiveness. In politics, that means getting good at rhetoric and compromise. Right now the Tea Party is telling the truth in angry, ugly ways that isolate it and strip it of effectiveness. It is essential for them to learn to tell the truth persuasively in a way that invites outsiders join in, a way that builds momentum, a way that actually has a chance of saving this republic.


Grim said...

Two points to begin thinking about.

1) The frame that Ace is talking about is not what Aristotle is talking about. He begins with the frame, "Stake out a position where the public agrees with Republicans." That's the work of demagogues, not rhetoricians as Aristotle conceives of them. The starting point is, as you say, in the truth. It isn't in popular opinion.

Only bad things happen when you chase popular opinion, now as in Ancient Greece. What you want to do is shape it, not chase it.

2) I am convinced that scholars are misreading Aristotle on the enthymeme. They take it, as you describe it, as a kind of 'loose' syllogism. Perhaps it has hidden premises, for example, which you hope your audience won't notice or will assume along with you. That's the usual view.

That's not at all in line with what Aristotle says about the rhetorician's work, though. What he says is this:

Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (EN I.3)

What that says is not that precision isn't available in rhetoric because we can't lay out all the logical premises. The problem is that there's an element of uncertainty in human affairs. You can't know with logical certainty what the right thing to do is, not in the way a mathematician can know the right answer to his problem. A rhetorician shouldn't be asked for scientific proofs because, if he gave one, he'd be misleading you into thinking that he had a sure thing. That's a lie, not the truth.

The reason that human affairs doesn't work like strict logic is a little hard to see from his examples, but it's very important. Do you think you can tell me what it is?

Grim said...

The answer, by the way, seems to me to explain the TEA Party's difficulties more than stiff-neckedness. Once you can see what's really going on with the enthymeme, it'll be easier to explain how we've come to this disastrous political pass.

Tom said...

I didn't intend to endorse Ace's answers, necessarily, but rather to use his post as a jumping off point. I agree that we need to shape opinion instead of merely chasing it.

I'll have to think about the rest for a bit.

Grim said...

Think all you want! I may not be around anyway.

Here's a hint: let's say a problem comes up for which we need a solution. How do we typically reason about what kind of a problem it is? Say a small country invades another, and we are considering invading. We typically have a certain kind of discussion about the relative wisdom of invasions, which is not abstract (i.e., it is not about logical objects) but historical (i.e., 'Remember how we didn't stop Hitler'; 'Remember how we got bogged down in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan').

How does a conversation like that differ from a logical argument? What's the source of the uncertainty that Aristotle is talking about? Is it really that the logic is 'loose'? Or is it something else?

Tom said...

I think part of the answer is what I wrote in the 6th paragraph:

But the questions of society are often not amenable to strict logic: there are too many unknowns, or there simply are no accepted truths about a topic from which to form a first premise. It is in these gray areas where the strictest logic cannot get very far that rhetoric can be quite useful.

As you say, there are too many unknowns for the normal logical syllogism to work.

What I'm not sure about is how this affects the Tea Party more than their own purity issues. It seems they simply don't share many of the premises that other Americans do, but then, they do share some as well, and it is those shared ideas (I think the term "endoxa" is what I mean) that they could build on to get part of what they want.

As for being stiff-necked, my experience is especially with one of the multitude of Tea Party groups, but my view is that their stubbornness was certainly part of the problems they ended up with. Maybe I shouldn't speak so broadly, but I see some evidence that it's a wide-spread issue in the movement.

Tom said...

What certainly hurts the Tea Party (and every other limited government movement) is the overwhelming statism of the academy and bureaucracy, but again, I don't see how that's a problem in the idea of the enthymeme. The opposition has more intellectual firepower, but that isn't necessarily the telling force in public opinion one might suspect. (Sometimes it is, of course.)

Okay, back to thinking.

Grim said...

So, let's think some more about this reasoning process.

When I ask you to think about a future event in terms of a past event, the standard view is that I'm making a logical argument of a sort. For that to be true, I'd have to be drawing your attention to a kind of universal, of which the two cases are supposedly instances.

Then the reasoning goes smoothly enough:

Fx: x is aggressive like Hitler
Gx: We should use military force to stop x before he becomes more dangerous.


The common view of the enthymeme is that it works like this, except that there are some hidden premises as well. ("We have adequate strength and/or allies," for example.) If the hidden premises are drawn out, then, we can test the truth of all of them, and apply strict logic to the enterprise of politics.

My argument is that this is fundamentally wrong both as an understanding of what Aristotle is talking about, and as an understanding of how politics works. I don't think there's a universal to appeal to here. Vietnam isn't Iraq; the next war isn't either.

So it's not logical, it's analogical. And a feature of analogies is that, by nature, they break down at some point.

Reasoning from analogies, then, can't offer the precision of 'strict logic' because it doesn't have logical objects from which to reason. There aren't universals and instances, there are analogs that aren't quite the same.

That's where I think the uncertainty is coming from. Now, let's talk about the rhetorical character of these analogs.

If we're going to reason from Vietnam or Iraq, what are we doing with them as cases? We're telling a story about them. So when we are reasoning in this way, it turns out that our very political process depends on access to shared stories -- and shared stories with meanings we agree upon. If Iraq means something different to me than to you, then my invocation of it won't persuade you in the way I think it will.

So what are the TEA Party's shared stories, and how do they differ from the ones that are invoked in popular culture?

Cass said...

If I may, I'd like to suggest that Ace isn't wrong by suggesting that the Tea Party start small and build on that foundation.

It's good advice for any new endeavor: use the low hanging fruit if you can to gain a beachhead from which to expand.

People aren't all rational. They need to feel like they share values, and it's easier to get to that trust if you establish it up front. Of course you don't want to betray your own beliefs in the process, but if you can embrace an issue where most of the public already agrees with the conservative position, you are fighting from strength instead of pushing a rock uphill and hoping for the kind of momentum only rocks rolling downhill typically exhibit.

Tom said...

Grim, I agree with your description of how the enthymeme works; it's much more precise than my own attempt to explain it.

Cass, I think you make a good point. Where we already have common beliefs, let's capitalize on them. Common ground is the best starting point in rhetoric, I think.

Grim said...

That's just where we are going, as it happens! Shared stories are what develop shared values.

So what are the stories? What are the TEA Party's stories, and what are the culture's?

Grim said...

Put another way, most of these TEA Party organizers are older Cold War veterans. They were just as stiffnecked then, in the face of accusations that America was fundamentally racist and unfair, or that Christianity should be kicked out of the forefront of society, or that capitalism was evil. But they won the Cold War, and the era before their generation began to share significant power with the Baby Boomers ends with the Reagan/Bush-I years.

What's really going on here isn't that people are stiffnecked. It's that the stories have changed. When you make an enthymeme that refers to the Alamo, now it's a slander against Mexican-Americans and Latinos generally. If you make one that refers to the country's Christian heritage, you're a racist and a homophobe. If you make one that refers to the goods of capitalism or the sunny days of Ronald Reagan, you're a rapacious thief who hates the poor.

The politics are playing out the way they are because of the success in rhetoric, in other words, by the counterculture among the Baby Boom generation. You can't achieve a political solution until you achieve a new rhetoric, because the only kind of enthymemes that are possible in this context are ones that assume our way is wrong and evil.

So rhetoric is the way to win, yes. Politics follows it, and shared values arise from it. This is why regular church goers are more conservative: the causation has to do with the stories they hear, and share in, as a regular part of their lives. The stories shape them.

Tom said...

Interesting. I didn't make the Cold War connection. The stories I thought of were Revolutionary / founding stories; Tea Partiers tend to understand the political ideas of that era better than the average bear.

I agree about the success of counterculture rhetoric; that is exactly what's happened, and we absolutely need a new rhetoric if we want to change the game.

Cass said...

Grim, I could not disagree more with you on the stories thing (at least as you've phrased it here).

Yes, stories are important. But so is tone. And the tone of quite a lot of much Tea Party rhetoric is harsh and angry and turns even people who tend to agree with them off. My kids don't buy into any of those "stories" you claim are causing the problem, and they are still turned off.

My 84 y/old father certainly doesn't buy into any of those stories and HE is massively turned off. He's slightly to the right of Genghis Khan, so he's the natural constituency of the Tea Party movement. And he's turned off by their rhetoric. This is a guy who is really angry himself and very worried, and it leaves him cold.

If political groups decide to circle the wagons and refuse to pay attention to feedback they're getting from people who actually share their goals and want them to succeed, that's a problem. Telling yourself that their minds have been corrupted by stories these folks manifestly DON'T buy into may be comforting, but it simply isn't true.

Grim said...

We haven't gotten as far as that, Cass. Tom asked me to walk through the Rhetoric with him. We're just getting started -- this stuff is all from Rhet I.1-3. What you're talking about is in Book II.2. ("These, then, are the frames of mind in which men are easily stirred to anger. The persons with whom we get angry are those who laugh, mock, or jeer at us, for such conduct is insolent.... Also those who speak ill of us, or show contempt for us, in connexion with the things we ourselves most care about[.]") We'll get there.

The first thing that has to be worked out is just what an enthymeme is, and how it functions. It functions as a kind of analogy, and it is subject to the limits of analogy in terms of precision. So we've now talked about that.

And the other point that I think we have to make, which has been made, is that you can destroy the sense of shared values by undermining the traditional analogies. It used to be that a reference to the Alamo in American politics had an uncontroversial meaning -- one that was not really entirely justified by the history, but it was a consensus opinion that could be invoked as a stable analogy. That's not true anymore, which would be unproblematic if it were just the one analog, but it isn't. There's been a sustained action for more than forty years to undermine all the analogs on which American society was based.

So it's not surprising that we're unmoored and divided as a population, and that traditional appeals -- however well constructed -- are unpersuasive especially to the young. They have been taught to think of the things to which we'd appeal in entirely different terms. We think we're making useful analogies, but we're analogizing to things they think poisonous and wicked.

That's a huge problem, even if you are skilled enough to avoid making people angry by appearing insolent.

Cass said...

OK, I'll bow out :)

I'm not equipped to discuss the general point in solely Aristotlean terms.

Tom said...

Cass, I'm not discussing everything solely in Aristotelian terms, so there's no reason you should.

I framed my post on Aristotle's rhetoric this way because I think it's an interesting way to do it, and I hope to have discussion both of the main point and of the Rhetoric.

Tom said...

On the impact of stories, I think Grim's right about why the Tea Party's stories are no longer as powerful as they once were. A significant portion of the population, especially the younger set, no longer believe (or even knows, in many cases) the old meanings of these stories.

And not to leap ahead, but I think Cass is right that tone has a lot to do with the Tea Party's limited appeal.

Grim said...

Certainly, don't bow out. :) Tom's post is about other things too; I'm referring to some emails when I say he was wanting me to work though the book with him. This needs to be done in a systematic way, so please don't mistake my focusing on things one at a time to mean that I'm dismissing things we haven't raised yet.

What I was dismissing was the idea that being stiffnecked and uncompromising was itself the reason for the TEA Party's failures. I don't think that's true, because the same people were just as uncompromising and stiffnecked during the Cold War and won. (Your father may not have liked these particular people then either; but your father and I are both good examples of men different enough from the common run of mankind that our opinions don't shape democratic politics.)

Being uncompromising can be a winning strategy, and in fact it is the winning strategy right now -- just by the other side. They've managed to get into the position that the analogs are in their favor, so they aren't compromising at all. Compromise is not foolish or improper in some cases, but it isn't necessary for political victory if you have control of the rhetorical analogs.

Grim said...

Ok, so, Tom: let's move on, so we can get to the point you want to talk about. We've gotten as far as I.3. Start now with I.4, and tell me how the next couple of sections inform your thought about the current set of problems.

Tom said...

The article I'm using doesn't use the numbering of the original for organization.

In its organization, we still need to cover 'The Three Means of Persuasion,' 'The Topoi,' and 'Style.' We could go deeper into enthymemes as well.

So, I'll move on into the 'Three Means,' I think.

By the way, I think the article's author, Christof Rapp, agrees with you about the enthymeme:

In a well known passage (Rhet. I.2, 1357a7–18; similar: Rhet. II.22, 1395b24–26), Aristotle says that the enthymeme often has few or even fewer premises than some other deductions, (sullogismoi). Since most interpreters refer the word ‘sullogismos’ to the syllogistic theory (see the entry on Aristotle's logic), according to which a proper deduction has exactly two premises, those lines have led to the widespread understanding that Aristotle defines the enthymeme as a sullogismos in which one of two premises has been suppressed, i.e., as an abbreviated, incomplete syllogism. But certainly the mentioned passages do not attempt to give a definition of the enthymeme, nor does the word ‘sullogismos’ necessarily refer to deductions with exactly two premises. Properly understood, both passages are about the selection of appropriate premises, not about logical incompleteness.

douglas said...

" The stories shape them."

Grim, I have to thank you for teaching me this. Before I knew of Grim's Hall, I really wasn't interested in non-fiction. Instead I sought non-fiction. I focused on gathering information and considerations of that information, but not 'mere' stories. Then we had a son, and a few years later, a daughter. Somewhere in there, I started coming here, at first thinking you were some kind of over the top romantic, but I kept coming back. Then more often until it was a regular destination. It was here you opened my eyes to what I was seeing in my children and their learning about the world- their world. Raw information wasn't how we taught them what was good or not- we used stories for that- mythologies (sometimes even factual 'mythologies'!). You clarified for me why I was concerned about everything they saw on t.v. or heard on the radio, or read in books. Why I spent so much effort trying to put the right books, shows, songs, in front of them- not fully hiding from 'popular culture' as they'll need to understand it as well, so as not to be seduced by it later. That was a lesson for me- that we cannot hide from 'popular culture' or wish it would change, but we must engage it and change it. That also forced me to not 'keep my head down' all the time (as a conservative in a very left leaning area), but to speak up and challenge 'the common understanding' of things that passed in conversation. It's not revolutionary change, but chipping away at the false facade of our current popular culture, to hopefully reveal the core of our common beliefs and culture still hiding in there. I hope so, anyway.

So, thank you very much for that.

Grim said...

You're welcome! Now go forth and teach.