*Editors note: this piece was written before the events of January 6 2021 at the United States Capitol.
The United States boasts a historically rich oratorical tradition. It is a tradition that still permeates many of their liberal arts colleges to this day and is one that is fundamentally embedded in the practice of law and political culture. Yet in recent years, it seems ever more evident that there are those within US political spheres who have either forgotten these principles or even outright debased them. From vicious point-scoring to the deliberate spread of misinformation, the dissolution of oratorical principles in favour of provocative, but largely hollow sound bites, feels ever-increasingly the norm. This is of course by no means unique to the political parties in the US – it is indeed a symptom abundantly evident in politics on this side of the Atlantic as well. But I would argue that it is the stark manner in which it manifests itself in the US that is particularly poignant, especially when one takes into account the aforementioned oratorical tradition as a backdrop.
It is a tradition that echoes the oratorical principles founded in ancient Greece two and a half thousand years ago. I’d argue that there is a definitive comparison to be made between the rhetoric we’re currently experiencing in the US between the Democratic and Republican parties, and that of the groups that emerged in ancient Greece following the disintegration of the aristocratic tradition in the fifth century B.C.E (as described in Bruce A. Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers). The distinctions between the three principle groups – the Sophists, philosophers, and orators – present us with a lens by which to interpret what is happening with political rhetoric in the US at present.
The Sophists, philosophers, and orators each presented their own educational approach in response to the disintegration of the aristocratic tradition. They grappled with what they perceived as the principles necessary for a prosperous democratic life, establishing a model by which to educate individuals according to said principles. Critical to this way of life was the political culture of its citizens within the city-state. It was a political culture in which it was fundamental, as a representative, to be able to employ rhetoric, wisdom, and eloquence to persuade citizens and win arguments and votes. All of which contributed to the just functioning of the democracy by way of these individuals.
In this regard, it is possible to see the potential parallels to be made between the shape of democracy in Athens all those years ago and that of US politics today. In the same manner that rhetoric took principal place in determining the outcome of the socio-economic structures of the Athenian city-state, so too have we witnessed the undeniable power that rhetoric continues to possess in the present-day. This power is made tangible in our relationship to an increasingly social media influenced society and politics. These platforms, however, are not without their complications. The ease of access between citizen and representative that should, in principle, offer the potential for open dialogue, clarity, and connection, has been seized upon and distorted by a rhetoric that is inherently divisive in form. By inverting the perceived benefits of such a platform, leaders of the Republican Party have demonstrated the way in which rhetoric without conscience, paired with the tools to reach millions instantly, produces a politics that is equally dangerous as it is compelling.
Though there are obviously clear differences between Athenian society and present-day America, the manner in which the Sophists, philosophers, and orators distinguished themselves from one another may be similarly felt in the distinguishing dispositions of both the Democratic and Republican parties in their approach to public rhetoric.
For the Sophists of ancient Greece, their focus was teaching the art of persuasion. They taught the technique of speech-making. Enabling their students to ‘compose, deliver, and [successfully] analyse a speech’. By doing so, the Sophists provided the techniques necessary for a persuasive, eloquent, and confident speaker – qualifying them as an influential individual on the political stage. This approach, though popular and effective in its execution, was widely criticised by the philosophers and orators of the day as lacking the substance and virtue of true arguments. By focusing on technique over truth, the Sophists, though skilful in their art, presented only an imitation of virtue – a persuasive, but ultimately empty, rhetoric.
Here one might suggest that there is a comparison to be made between the Sophists and modern-day Republican rhetoric. As election day sped ever nearer, political debate between the party leaders took centre stage in recent months. It is in these instances that the rhetorical capabilities of these leaders were laid bare for all to see. And there seemingly exists a wilful disconnect by certain members of the Republican Party to those rhetorical principles previously regarded in such high esteem. This abdication of rhetorical principles has given a distinctly unsettling shape to Republican rhetoric, and to a lesser measure Democratic rhetoric as well. One need only compare the performances given in both the presidential and vice precedential debates to witness the degree to which this has occurred.
It is a style of rhetoric (if one may even call it that) that has emerged with greater fervour over the course of the last four years within the Republican Party. Whether it be on the debate stage, in press briefings, within congress, or even on the White House lawn, the 45th President and his Republican colleagues, though divided in some cases with regard to policy, stand resolute when it comes to political rhetoric. By employing inflammatory, provocative language and appealing to broad, but largely abstract ideological principles (freedom, liberty, American traditions, Christian values, national defence, etc.), the President and his associates are able to provoke and persuade their supporters without the need to adhere to concrete policy principles or legislation. In this regard, there is little substance, if any, behind their claims, but the words themselves are not without power or consequence. That is, indeed, where the real danger lies. To dismiss that form of rhetoric on the basis that it lacks any truth, (though a wholly accurate and verifiable claim), is to overlook the violent influence that divisive and vitriolic rhetoric possesses. That is the power that the Sophists of ancient Greece were fully aware of. They knew, as all in politics, that rhetoric matters. It matters in a truly fundamental sense. The Sophists knew the power and influence that persuasive rhetoric held – both over its citizens and ultimately the democracy as a whole. To affect people, is to affect society. When rhetoric, therefore, is employed without conscience, without responsibility, we find ourselves with a politics of the kind implemented by the Republican Party at present. A politics with leaders negligent in their approach to the reality their rhetoric creates.
Our second faction within Athenian democracy was the philosophers. These individuals put truth and wisdom at the heart of their approach. They perceived philosophy as the truly intellectual and virtuous practice by which citizens may free themselves from ignorance and partake in a principled political life. The perpetual quest for truth, personified in this period by the work of Plato, presented the Socratic method of questioning as a means of developing discipline and wisdom in the questioner. The philosophers believed that such intellectual training would lead to a just and measured representative, which would be reflected in the rhetoric espoused in accordance with this training.
Though arguably providing substance where the Sophists fell short, this philosophical approach presented its own deficiencies. Though embracing the virtuous pursuit of truth as a fundamental principle of their rhetorical endeavours, the philosophical approach had the potential to become a largely insular practice as well. The result of which could give the impression of detachment, by the individual, from the general populace. An individual content to engage with society only as an intellectual activity. This arises due to the disconnect that can emerge between he who is being questioned and he who does the questioning. The questioner comes to objectify the citizen; they become nothing more than the mechanism by which the questioner furthers their own wisdom. Thus, losing the sense of human interconnection crucial to the process in the first place. Though not necessarily true of the philosophical approach as a whole, the potential for this detachment to occur warrants at least a certain level of caution so as not to allow oneself to slip into apathy by way of this disassociation.
The well-principled, but largely dissonant approach that constitutes the philosophical perspective may be said to illuminate the difficulties that the Democratic Party has experienced in connecting to their constituents in recent years.
In the same way that the philosophers struggled with the perception of them as an intellectually insular group, so too has the Democratic Party struggled to shake the public perception of them as a group of out-of-touch elites. Just as Republicans have utilised a particular style of rhetoric to determine the shape of their own party, so too have they used those same techniques regarding the public perception of the Democrats as well. For the last four years the Republican Party and the 45th President have continued to perpetuate the narrative that the Democratic Party are the party of the “extreme radical left” – intent on bringing about the downfall of hard-fought, traditional American values. The potency of such a narrative furthers the notion that the Democratic Party are not the ‘party of the people’ (despite legislative action that would suggest otherwise), but are instead comprised of intellectual elites, utterly removed from the people they claim to represent, and therefore dismissive of the lives of individuals outside of Capitol Hill. For Republicans it matters not whether such claims are true, (nor of their apparent hypocrisy), it matters only whether the rhetoric itself further persuades and incites the citizens who hear it.
For the last four years the Democratic Party finds itself repeatedly inhibited by the dominance of Republican rhetoric. By utilising traditional and social media platforms to continually reinforce this notion, Republicans have seized control of the public perception of the Democratic Party – largely by being the loudest in the room. In this regard, the principled character of the philosopher is overlooked in view of his insular practices. Rather than acknowledge the socio-economic justices that the Democratic Party represent, emphasis is instead put upon the distinctions between citizen and representative, thereby increasing the divide between the representatives and the people they claim to represent. Ultimately, the rhetoric of ‘othering’ the Democrats is louder than the reality of their legislative practices.
Although, perhaps, the potency of said rhetoric may finally be beginning to diminish.
But where does that leave the Democratic Party? The philosopher? How does one respond to a political system that, at least on the surface, gives greater attention to diction over the substance of what is being delivered.
For the orators of ancient Greece, this dilemma was central to the formulation of their approach. Aware of these concerns, the orators sought to distinguish themselves from their philosophical and Sophist counterparts. To do so, orators aimed to unite both virtue and eloquence in their approach – with the understanding that technique without ideals was a baseless rhetoric, and that virtue without connection was a misguided endeavour. Thus, the orators put the greatest emphasis on the marriage of wisdom and eloquence – teaching both the principles of rhetoric and the study of philosophy to imbue this in their students. The culmination of this education was an accomplished orator, proficient in rhetorical appeals, but who also, crucially, lived out those same principles they espoused. Simply put, the orator, in Isocrates words, was the individual who was able ‘to speak well and think right’. An ability too often overlooked.
In present-day however, as seen with both the Democrats and the Republicans, it is not enough simply for the orator (or representative) to speak well and think right, they must also be proficient in utilising the tools at their disposal regarding social media. It is crucial, as a representative of the people in today’s society to be capable of effectively conveying themselves over a variety of platforms. An obstacle that the orators of ancient Greece had little need to concern themselves over.
This is where I believe the Democratic Party has struggled in recent years. Up against a Republican base that aims to dominate the public conversation by any means necessary, the Democrats find themselves with little room to make a lasting impact on rhetorical grounds. What is needed is a representative who is able to bring together the oratorical eloquence of the tradition with the capacity to convey that depth and sincerity across social media as well.
I believe that the Democratic Party has already found such a representative in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is called by her supporters, embodies, I believe, a new kind of democratic representative. She is one of the most visible figures in US politics today, and as a young, progressive, woman of colour with a significant following, AOC epitomises everything that the Republican Party fears. Vilified by those on the right, and a frequent target of the 45th President’s ire, AOC and her progressive colleagues in congress – the “Squad”: Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib – have distinguished themselves as a new generation of public servants. AOC is unmistakably distinct from her more moderate Democratic colleagues by the manner in which she is able to relate to voters, particularly young voters, with apparent ease. A characteristic that the Democratic Party has notably struggled with in the past. It is this feature that sets AOC apart from her colleagues in Congress. Her strength, I would argue, comes from her versatility. Equally capable of commanding the floor of the House of Representatives with eloquence, grace and strength and of chatting back-and-forth with citizens on Twitter and Instagram Live, AOC demonstrates the way in which it is possible for political representatives to comfortably navigate these platforms without pretence. Just recently, AOC livestreamed the videogame Among Us on her newly created Twitch account. Peaking at 439,000 concurrent viewers, her Twitch stream now rates among the top 20 biggest streams of all time. Though an unusual tactic for voter outreach, it cannot be denied that AOC was able to utilise a popular platform (beyond that of Twitter or Instagram) to great effect, that few, if any, within her political party would be capable of replicating with the same level of authenticity.
Obviously, one cannot expect all politicians to suddenly start streaming themselves playing videogames. Part of the reason why it worked, perhaps, is both its novelty and because AOC is herself a bit of a gamer. It was kept, therefore, on her part from ever feeling unnatural or disingenuous. Such an event does demonstrate, however, in its own way, how the shape of politics may be shifting due to the actions of representatives of the kind like AOC. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of modern oratory in the US because she is able to do what both the Republicans and the Democrats have failed to accomplish. Namely, utilised the tools at her disposal, with equal measures of conscience and competency. Whilst, Republicans have failed at the former, and the Democrats the latter. Modern oratory has become what it has, not by eradicating traditional rhetorical principles, but by recognising just what those principles look like within a politics that cannot ignore the necessary role that social media plays within that structure. Thus, a representative capable of navigating the nuances of this relationship not only disrupts the Republican dominance on such platforms, but also demonstrates the lack of integrity at the core of that dominance – and thereby undermines it.
Ultimately, it is individuals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who provoke a re-evaluation of the relation that exists between politics, rhetoric, and the media. It prompts us to examine the nature of oratory in the present-day; how an adept orator can recognise the ways in which the shape of oratory continues to evolve in relation to our societal needs. As such, oratory may be said to reflect the society in which it is utilised, and vice versa. In this regard, it is critical to not dismiss our relationship to rhetoric lightly when it is a fundamental apparatus by which we may better know the state of a democracy’s soul. Thus, the importance of a principled and just rhetoric cannot be underestimated when it reflects a specific societal need for stability and integrity in political life. This, I believe, in part, is why Joe Biden and the Democratic Party ultimately won the 2020 Presidential election. Their victory demonstrates that there still exist within America the desire for the type of political representative who embodies a steady and principled politics.
However, Biden’s win, on its own, does not necessarily signify a complete and total shift away from the type of rhetoric espoused by the Republican Party. Yes, Biden won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, but that still leaves over 72 million Americans who voted for the alternative. The Democrats might have won the election, but they have inherited a firmly divided country – addressing the roots of these divisions is fundamental if they truly seek to repair and better the lives of their citizens. To do so, Democratic Party leaders must recognise the essential role that young, progressive representatives played in their victory. It is AOC, and others like her, who truly understand the shape of modern politics and how to effectively campaign accordingly. The vulnerabilities in the manner in which moderate Democratic representatives ran their campaigns – focusing on TV and mail as a means of voter outreach, rather than utilising social media and in-person canvassing – demonstrates the way in which the Democratic Party still has a long way to go in shedding the identity and practice of the disconnected philosopher. To truly emerge as the party committed to dismantling the systems of power that legitimised the type of rhetoric espoused by the Republican Party, moderate Democratic leaders need to collaborate more fully with their more progressive colleagues with regard to rhetoric and practice. Representatives like AOC understand this need and are responding to it accordingly. This, I would argue, is what identifies her as a modern orator. It is not a radical position, but an essential feature of a just democracy. The ancient Greeks understood this necessity, and it is the new generation of democratic representatives who are reminding the US of this truth one more. Consequently, if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signifies the revival of principled oratory, then the future of US politics is in steady hands.