Speeches and Rhetoric: a Political Perpective

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Alex Law
Com 250
26 April 2012

Speeches and Rhetoric: A Political Perspective

What exactly is rhetoric? How do we see it used in politics today? Rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, is “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” (Griffin, p. 276). It is almost certain that we each use some form of rhetoric from day to day, sprinkled throughout casual conversations as we attempt to persuade each other of some not-so-important beliefs or ideas. Rhetoric, however, is also perpetually common in everyday politics. A specific facet of rhetoric used within politics as noted by Aristotle is referred to as deliberative rhetoric. This idea states that in politics, people within a community deliberate together and use rhetoric to persuade each other that a certain action will be the best choice in reaching a desired outcome or beneficial consensus for the community as a whole. This specific notion of deliberative rhetoric differs from other forms of rhetoric in that each form uses persuasion in order to accomplish different goals. For example, Aristotle notes that while deliberative rhetoric uses persuasion in hopes of reaching a desired conclusion for which action to take in order to benefit the community, something like forensic rhetoric attempts to persuade an audience that an action was just or unjust or that a criminal defendant is guilty or innocent. (Yack 2006). Rhetoric however is not limited to the ideas and applications of Aristotle.

Although rhetoric truly can be seen in almost any study or discipline, its function within politics in particular remains severely relevant and important. Rhetoric in politics may include anything from the specific wording of messages in a political advertisement to the style of language a politician chooses to use depending on where they are located geographically. One of the most prominent and functional forms of rhetoric seen in politics though would be the act of giving a public speech. Political speeches have a deep rooted and notorious history of persuading large sums of people to various ideas. Examples of famous political speeches include Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. (Powell & Cowart p. 150). Other political speeches can have an equally powerful message with, instead, a much darker tone. A prime example of this would be the antisemitic speeches of Adolf Hitler in 1940's Germany.

So how are political speeches and the art of rhetoric used in communication research? In order to answer this question it would be helpful to take a look a some specific examples of recent times. One particular article by Deborah Atwater in 2007 did an excellent job of analyzing present day political rhetoric by examining the future president of the United States, Illinois senator Barack Obama, and his reoccurring “rhetoric of hope”. It turns out that after the publication of that article, Barack Obama continued his rhetoric of hope throughout his campaign and into his first term of presidency. Why is it though that certain themes such as a rhetoric of hope can be so pervasive while other topics are not? Part of the success of Obamas rhetoric of hope no doubt lies in his ability to present a speech. Obamas exceptional public speaking skills combine with his broad optimistic messages of hope and motivate the listener to act. Essentially, his rhetoric of hope was proven effective when enough people were persuaded to vote him into the White House in 2008. With this example we begin to answer the question of how speeches and rhetoric are used within communication research.

In order to use rhetoric effectively, specifically within politics, one must learn how to give an effective speech. A speech is one of the oldest and purest forms of human communication. Concerning the advancement of communication research, rhetoric and political speeches are often studied by campaign teams in order to learn how...
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