Recently I wrote that Newt Gingrich is trying to create a rhetorical frame of Mitt Romney as a super rich guy who is out of touch with normal people. Shouldn’t be that hard to do. I want to write again about controlling the frame that affects the way we think about things in politics, and I’ll also talk about other rhetorical techniques here.
Within the past week I read a newspaper article that talked about framing in terms of what Obama might face in the election. Democrats and Republicans will obviously want to use different frames. In some cases the difference can sound subtle, yet it has an effect. The usefulness of the frames, for the most part, is only for persuading people who are in the middle and might vote either way. For people who are absolutely committed to one party or the other, there’s nothing much to say, except “Hooray for our side!”
For those persuadable voters, from the Republican point of view, the best frame is “Do you like Obama and what he has done, or do you have problems with him?” Many people have been unhappy with Obama, and I’m not talking about the dumbass fringe who hate him merely because he’s a black un-American communist Muslim. I mean people who actually use their brains, and who have honest complaints about the policies of the president. If the frame of discussion can be set up as to whether we are happy with the president or not, chances are increased for voters who are unhappy to say, “Well, maybe a change would be better.” And of course, the way to get that change is to vote Republican.
For Democrats, the best frame for voters in the middle is “Do you like Obama or do you like Romney?” Oooo…we have to like Romney to vote for him? Because that’s walking farther uphill. Within this frame the question is no longer just about Obama, but about giving more serious thought to what it means to choose the other side. The advantage to Democrats of such a frame is that the negative qualities about Romney become more relevant as a reason not to vote for him, and therefore, presumably, to vote for Obama.
The idea of rhetorical frames has been discussed by George Lakoff, a modern scholar of language and rhetoric. Let’s go back a little and look at the ideas of another scholar of rhetoric—Aristotle. From Aristotle we have ways of talking about rhetoric that are enormously influential 2,500 years later, represented by the three ancient Greek words logos, pathos and ethos as methods of persuasion. For rhetoric scholars the words are a kind of technical jargon, but for regular people these words can be translated rather well as “logic”, “emotion”, and “credibility”.
We are in the field of politics in this blog entry, so logic hardly enters into it, other than to note its frequent absence. In this sense, “logic” as a method of persuasion can mean either connecting ideas in a “logical” way, or it can mean giving detailed factual information, such as what a politician intends to do. Politicians are famous for not being very specific on what exactly they want to do and how, because the moment they provide that information, their opponents will attack them.
One of the most common methods in politics for trying to persuade is with pathos, or emotion. This is why every politician appears in front of giant flags and why they all talk about how much they love the country. Emotional appeals are also why every politician talks over and over about how pro-family they are and how they support “family values” (whatever the hell that is), even when the policies they propose actually make it harder for families, like lack of health care. Another example of emotional appeal over logic is opposing abortion while also opposing birth control and sex education, which would prevent pregnancies that might be aborted. But recognizing these facts would be logic, and of course we’re avoiding that. Politicians rely so heavily—intensely, in fact—on emotion because it works. People respond to it, and emotion is extremely persuasive, with very little logic involved.
One of the most important methods of persuasion in politics is ethos, or credibility. If a person is smart and logical and says good things, but no one believes them, then nothing that is said matters. All effective rhetoric begins with the audience being willing to listen. That is the idea behind ethos. Politicians know this, and in our political system, it is possible to win by making the other side lose.
The need for credibility is the reason for what we call either “negative campaigning” or “mudslinging”, using methods that attack the credibility of other candidates. Attempting to diminish the credibility of the other side is enormously powerful, and it has always been used. When Thomas Jefferson ran for office, his opponents wanted to claim that he was not religious enough, so they called him an “infidel”. When Grover Cleveland ran in 1884, to refer to the fact that he had an illegitimate child, his opponents chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”
So when Newt Gingrich says that Mitt Romney is a “Massachusetts liberal” or tries (rather weirdly) to say that Obama is a Kenyan, he is attacking their ethos, a time-honored, if nasty, political technique. Voters may sometimes hate the mudslinging and not knowing what a politician really will do in office, but politicians are using what works. We complain, but these things affect how we vote.