One of the most useful dictums on politics comes from the book of Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sum. Democracy and its discontents have been around since well before the Greeks and the Romans.
That’s why, today and for the rest of the presidential campaign, it’s helpful to look to one of those Greeks and his thoughts on rhetoric.
Modernity has made rhetoric a bad word, but it really just means “persuasive speech (and writing).” And persuasion is the key to this election - it’s all about the undecideds.
Aristotle divided rhetoric into three parts: ethos, pathos and logos. Each is a building block of an effective, compelling speech.
Ethos can be translated as “character.” It’s how much an audience trusts the speakers. Sadly, in today’s political climate, both the Democratic and Republican candidates are operating with a deficit of ethos. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both running with higher unfavorable ratings than favorable ratings. Looking at the Realclearpolitics Average of Polls, Trump has a wider gap of unfavorable-to-favorable (58.3 percent to 36.5 percent) than Clinton (55 percent to 40 percent), but both are seen as untrustworthy. That’s working strongly against both of them.
Pathos, Aristotle’s second part of rhetoric, can be defined as “emotional appeal.” Here, Trump seems to be ahead. Much of Trump’s appeal isn’t to the well-studied political class, it’s to the disaffected people who feel left behind by the post-recession economy and cultural shifts. The emphasis here is on feel. On the other hand, Clinton has waged a long and losing battle to be perceives as more “real,” more “human,” and more “in touch.” Those terms describe a pathos deficit. To be more persuasive, she’s going to have to connect with people at a visceral level in a way she hasn’t before.
Aristotle’s third part of rhetoric, logos, is where Clinton shines, however. Logos is the argument side of the debate - the nitty-gritty of actual policy. Trump is famously unstudious and even proud of his lack of policy chops. Clinton is banking on her superiority on policy details to get her through; Trump has said “My voters don’t’ care… They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”
That may be true of some voters, but it has left many of the ideological conservatives in the GOP less than willing to enthusiastically support Trump.
If we had a scorecard, it would look like this - Ethos: Neither candidate has an advantage; Pathos: Advantage Trump; Logos: Advantage Clinton.
With the razor-thin margins of the latest polls, candidates should try to shore up their weaknesses. There’s still time, and as they say, a week is an eternity in a political campaign.
Today, and in the days to come, pundits and barbers and neighbors will be analyzing last night’s debate. But Aristotle has given us a lens through which to view it, with a better perspective.
Rhetoric isn’t a bad word. And when the election is over, Aristotle’s lens will be a useful way to evaluate both victory and defeat.