Aristotle wrote that you could persuade people in three ways.
You could use ethos, or arguments based on the speaker's character: I'm a trustworthy and honest guy, so you should pay attention to this column.
You can use logos, or an appeal to logical argumentation: In this column, I will present numerous facts and examples to back up my claims.
Finally, you can use pathos, or an appeal to the audience's emotions: If you don't read this column, then you'll bomb your next final and Morgan Stanley won't hire you.
You can learn a lot about modern political discourse by following the 2008 campaign through this Aristotelian lens. If you look at the way the candidates present themselves, you find that their appeals to voters are based almost entirely on ethos. They sell themselves as personalities and as resumes, but their actual ideas are often glossed over.
Look at the Democratic side. John Edwards? He's the son of a millworker who has been fighting for the common man since day one. Hilary Clinton? She's the experienced leader who knows how to get things done on Capitol Hill. Barack Obama? He's the candidate of change whose biracial heritage can help unify the country.
Now, ask yourself this. Do you understand the differences between the Democratic candidates' healthcare plans, or what their views are on the future of Social Security? Probably not. Candidates have shied away from logos, and they've made very little effort at seriously differentiating themselves on the basis of their policy proposals.
It's the same thing on the Republican side. John McCain is the straight-talking veteran, Rudy Giuliani stood firm on 9/11, and so on. There's a bit more pathos in the form of fear-mongering on this end of the political spectrum (vote for Tancredo, or illegal immigrant gang members will rape your children), but again, logos is almost entirely absent from the race.
Why are political campaigns like this? Certainly, the media does its part, by focusing on the superficial and treating political coverage as if it were celebrity journalism (see: Clinton's tears or Edwards' haircut). But the candidates themselves are to blame as well. When they do talk about policy, it's often in the context of a larger ethos-based appeal. Rather than offer specific proposals, John McCain talks about his military service and then suggests that that's why he'd make the best decisions about when to go to war. Hillary Clinton tells us that she will get universal healthcare passed, because she has experience fighting Big Pharma in the early 90's.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with arguments from ethos. But, in this campaign, I think that the clash of personalities is overshadowing the clash of ideas. When I bring up economics Professor Paul Krugman's serious critique of Obama's healthcare plan to fellow Obama boosters at Princeton, some of them have no idea what I'm talking about. They know Obama as the "Hope" and "Change" candidate, and they don't realize that on many domestic issues, he's actually running to the right of both Edwards and Clinton.
We can hope that, at least on the Democratic side, the ethos-based campaigning stems from a desire to avoid a repeat of the disaster in 2000. Then, Al Gore ran as the ultimate logos-oriented candidate, offering nitty-gritty details of his policy proposals in each his stump speeches. Yet, he ended up losing to an inarticulate and dimwitted politician from Texas whose entire platform seemed to be that he was a likable guy. Democrats are now trying hard to sell themselves on the basis of character, and claim the "likability" crown back from the Republicans. If doing that can help us avoid another term under a conservative administration, then in the end it's justified.
But, as Aristotle's tripartite division reminds us, people are persuaded not simply because of who you are, but also because of what arguments you make. Once the primaries are over, and the Democrats have unified behind a single candidate, I hope that they will not be afraid to call attention to the policy differences between the two parties. After all, as Stephen Colbert says, "reality has a well-known liberal bias," and 2008 will be a great year to show just how true that is. Jason Sheltzer is a molecular biology major from St. Davids, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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