This commentary was originally posted in May 2017 as the political season moved into high gear. I updated this in late Fall 2017 as Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were about to square off at Hofstra University for their presidential debate.
And it is worth reading again after last night’s State of the Union presentation to the Congress by President Donald Trump (January 30, 2018). This was a different persona for the chief of state, not the harsh tones of the Twitter-ing that he does every day; not the campaign rally insults and pointing out the dangers posed “by the other” of us); not the nastiness in general of his off-the-cuff commentary.
The “SOTU” was polished, well presented, with some flourishes here and there, some policies laid out with details and others brush-stroked for the lawmakers (to fill in the blanks). Overall for President Trump, a good night.
The Democrat response by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III was also excellent and perhaps a good example for us in the context of the Aristotelean model that I outlined in 2017 in the commentary here.
Given all of the above, I think the content here is worth re-reading and keeping in mind as we move into the campaigning for the November 2018 election.
Commentary by Hank Boerner
Back in May 2017, as the primary season was in full roar, the two main contenders were steadily emerging in the leader position in their respective parties — Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Tonight the two square off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York (about 20 miles east of Manhattan).
Are you tuning in? Estimates are that perhaps 100 million people will be watching on broadcast, cable and social media. We are along, long way from the first televised presidential debate, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and then-VP Richard M. Nixon. That was a very polite and real debate, with issues front and center and the two contenders exchanging compliments (about the other).
The two contenders today are absolute opposites and lightning rods in their own right for serious criticism — and at the same time heaped with praise by their fiercely fervent followers.
So how do we cut through the bombast and probably the insults hurled, and barbs exchanged and other snide-ery to take the true measure of each of the contenders?
For sure, both are intelligent, strong-minder, powerful personalities who first names are front-of-mind in every corner of our country.
Back in May, as the two contenders were moving ahead in the polling, I shared thoughts on how to judge the “values” of the Republican and Democratic front-runner.
Update: Here is my May 2016 commentary — hope that it is helpful for you.
The nation is being perceived at home and abroad perceived as being deeply divided on many issues. Labels abound — signifying “I’m right/you are wrong” on many issues.
Labels: Right-Left. Liberal-Conservative. New York City & Hollywood and the rest of the USA. The One Percent and the rest of us (the 99%). Republican-Democrat, or at least by the labels of what that used to mean.
Look at the messages we have been hearing:
Put up a big wall (a beautiful wall, 60-feet tall with a beautiful door) to keep “them” out vs. a more liberal immigration policy.
No Muslims allowed vs. we cannot discriminate and the basis of religious or ethnic origin. (Remember that powerful First Amendment!)
Tear up NAFTA vs. those advocating for free trade polices.
Free tuition – for all in public universities. No more student loans. vs. everyone should pay their own way.
And on and on and on. If you own stock in ABC-TV (that is, in parent Walt Disney Company stock, the corporate owner)– or perhaps CNN (parent Time Warner) — or MSNBC (Comcast) or Fox (News Corp), you should be pleased. The ad campaign dollars have been flowing in and the best is yet to come in the general election cycle.
If you are the “average” American (whatever definition that is today), and you are trying to decide who to vote for, perhaps volunteer for, maybe click the payment button on the candidate web site to send money…well, you are not alone if you are anxious, confused, angry, disappointed, disgusted, hopeful, and more.
So I will briefly share some of my coaching techniques here that may help you to better evaluate “who” is deserving of your support and vote. (And DO vote this November; a lot is at stake!).
About “The Rhetoric” — Not a Bad Word
We often toss around the term, “rhetoric” (as in, oh, that’s just political rhetoric) but the concept is very important. Here’s why.
Over the years in my professional life, and even in my personal dealings with leadership (when I volunteer to do so), my coaching for speech-making and more effective campaigning goes back about many centuries, to Ancient Greece and in the years of 300’s B.C.
We owe thanks to Ancient Greece for introducing us the first western concept of democracy. Think Demos — in Ancient Greece the People. Greece was a direct form (not representative form) of democracy. Rhetoric was as a system devised by the wise men to help the citizens (and not everyone was one) to understand politics and politicking (Polity, derived from the Greek word for citizen…politics should be all about the work of citizens in governing themselves in the democracy.)
The perfecter of the system of rhetoric was the great teacher, Aristotle, He was born about 384 B.C. and died at age 62 in 322 B.C. He is credited with greatly influencing western philosophy, Islam and Judaism, and many philosophers and deep thinkers who would follow.
Aristotle is often credited with being the first tue scientist; creator of “logic” as we know it; was one of the most honored citizens and teachers of his time.
The important teaching relevant to this essay is about rhetoric — in the the Ancient Greek, the making of magnificent orator, a teacher. Here are brief highlights of what my partners and I adopted in our leadership coaching from the Aristotle’s teachings on rhetoric. Aristotle believed there were three means of persuasion in the democracy: reason, character and emotion. These are all on display in campaign 2016 in the U.S.A.
Ethics and Values Come First
First — consider ethos – from this our modern day term ” ethics” has descended. It’s about the values of the orator. What are his/her personal values, beliefs, actions, ethical behaviors? They are on display in the speaker up there on the podium, derived in great measure from the actions (walking the talk) as well as the pronouncements.
Second — consider pathos — from this we get modern day sympathy, empathy. It is about the connection with the audience (the “hearer,” the receiver of the oration]. Is the speaker connecting with the audience? Are they feeling connected with him/her? Do they share values? Do you share the values of the candidate(s) that you prefer in 2016?
Third — consider logos — the word from the Ancient Greek. We think of “logo” in terms of the familiar corporate branding but it means more. It is the word/words — the signs — coming from the speaker to the audience. And other signals, some silent. (Does she look you in the eye? Does he seem uncomfortable up there? Do you have a feeling that what the speaker is saying isn’t ringing true with you?)
Putting It All Together
So simply put, does the orator (1) demonstrate the values that the audience appreciates, agrees with, shares with the speaker? (2) Is the speaker connecting with the audience in powerful ways? (The best of our preachers know well how to do this on Sunday mornings.) And (3) are the words coming forth (the logos) resonating…creating empathy…”ringing true” with those listening?
This is the system of persuasive rhetoric. And in the end, if all this works, we achieve mythos…a powerful, memorable, moving story that will ripple out way beyond that immediate audience. In the Ancient Greek, it was about a teaching a fable. But we clearly remember childhood fables, don’t we? The turtle and the hare. Jack and the Beanstalk. Little Red Riding Hood and “grandma” Wolf.
And the mythos created by a candidate is very powerful. Think of President Ronald Reagan — the Great Communicator. President Theodor Roosevelt – Speak Softly and Carry the Big Stick. President Franklin Roosevelt — We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself! President John Kennedy — Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You! These logos became the enduring embodiment and capture the legacy of many presidents.
And so whether conscious or not of the power of the system of rhetoric, we the listeners will no doubt be making up our minds on candidates in 2016 based on their rhetoric.
The two front runners now — Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton — have mastered rhetoric, whether by conscious means or not. You like them or not based on the system of rhetoric I’ve just set out for your use.
I am writing this summary for you, dear friend and voter, not the candidates. They have their own advisors. I’m sharing this so that you can watch and listen to the candidates and the campaigns as these unfold, and put the ethos-pathos-logos together and see if the mythos (story) adds up and matches your own story. (Every one of our lives and those of our loved ones, near and departed, is a story, right? A story we tell over and over in various ways.}
It may be that you have to hold your nose or avert your eyes and cast your vote. Or, happily, a candidate may really touch you and their mythos resonates with you and others.
So far, the two political party outsiders — Senator Bernie Sanders and The Donald — have done a really good job of creating their stories, mostly anti-establishment, anti-status quo. Their rhetoric is resonating with enthusiastic, cheering audiences.
What are your issues? What keeps you up at night? What are your daily worries? Think about the ethos — the values of the candidate(s) — and think hard: do they match your feelings about key issues, etc.?
Having coached corporate executives, public officials, heads of activist organizations, and others in the Aristotlean method of the rhetoric, I must listen to the candidates through this lens. And so can you.
And, (sigh) since we are a very divided nation on so many issues, I am finding it challenging to nail down the mythos that most appeals to me. I think that many Americans are in the same boat.
As my colleague and friend Larry Checco (a brilliant essayist) writes, this year it’s not about political party anymore — it’s about COUNTRY! in this election cycle. You can see his essay at Accountability Central .com
And the 40% of the electorate that is reputed to be “independent” of party label or affiliation will be the determining factor in November.
When you hear “rhetoric,” keep in mind now that it is an ancient yet very powerful system to motivate you, the voter. Use this guide in evaluating who should get your very precious gift in November – your vote!
Good luck to us all!
Personal footnote: My growin’ up hometown is Hempstead, New York (and semi-rural East Hempstead). How great it is for this hometown boy to see Hometown Hempstead and Hofstra University in the headlines ’round the clock!