Reviving Rhetoric: An Aristotelian Interpretation of the Campaigns of Political Underdogs

I was in my final year of graduate school, writing a dissertation on the place of persuasion in the success of contemporary American social movements, when the nearly two-year-long campaign for the American president who would succeed George W. Bush began. As a student of politics, it was impossible not to be transfixed by the epic discursive battle being waged, first in the hard-fought Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and finally during the general election campaign in which, Obama, having won against his formidable Democratic rival, entered a political contest with veteran politician John McCain. For the American public, this contest was the most closely followed election in decades. A Gallup poll taken in June 2008, early summer, when political attention is usually at its nadir, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans described the 2008 campaign as “exciting.” By September, Gallup found that a record 87 percent, almost nine in ten Americans, reported that they were following national politics closely. The astonished poll takers wrote, in the summary of their results, “This significantly exceeds anything Gallup has measured since it began asking this question in 1995.”*

The excitement generated by the election was due to a number of factors, among them: the contest was for an open seat, no incumbent was on the ballot, and the field of candidates was unusually strong. The Democratic primary, in particular, had included a number of rarities, including the first woman frontrunner for party nomination and only the third African American candidate to ever enter the Democratic party’s nominating contest. These two candidates, each of whom would be “firsts” in the American presidency, emerged as the strongest in the field, and their struggle for primacy was dramatized by a long and highly competitive primary process. In one corner was the well-known and much admired senator from New York and former first lady, Hillary Clinton, and, in the other, the newly minted senator from Illinois, a rhetorical and organizing powerhouse with the “funny name,” Barack Obama. Americans, usually bored by and cynical about political contests, were transfixed.

As a researcher studying how political underdogs, especially social movements, can use their deliberate and disciplined entrance into mass-mediated public discourse as a resource that can make them equal to those who already hold the balance of access, money, and official position, the campaign was a powerful allegory. In the early days of the campaign for the White House, common wisdom held that Clinton would be the inevitable Democratic nominee. She was politically experienced, talented, well resourced, and she represented one of the most powerful Democratic families in the country. Barack Obama, who had made a splash at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech that was much more memorable than that of the presidential nominee, was generally regarded as promising, but too green to eclipse the Clinton juggernaut.

However, there was one thing that everyone acknowledged: the fresh-faced young man could speak. The organizational innovation and discipline of the Obama campaign, rooted in the community-organizing philosophy of Saul Alinsky, was essential to the eventual success of his campaign. Innovations in mobilization techniques, fundraising, and direct constituent communication techniques would be oft noted in election postmortems, but what distinguished the candidate in the popular political imagination, and what made his candidacy credible in those early days of campaign 2008, was the way he could turn a phrase.

Barack Obama is a rhetorician whose dominant style of argument is by a mode that Aristotle dubbed ethos, or character. Argument by ethos requires that the speaker be able to present themselves as “worthy of credence,” something that a rhetor can show by demonstrating that they have “practical wisdom,” “virtue,” and “goodwill.” Argument by ethos is both the most difficult of the persuasive modes of speech (which include argument by logos, or logic, and argument by pathos, or emotion) and the most powerful. This is because argument by ethos requires that a person be able to create a perception of their character in speech, separate from any assumptions based on ascriptive characteristics or prior assessment of deeds. If persuasion by ethos is successful, then the rhetor is able to create in the audience a “disposition toward belief” in the character of the speaker, a disposition that may exceed belief in the subject spoken about.

Social movements that seek to introduce new issues on the policy agenda can also benefit from crafting a perception of their character in public discourse. They can use rhetoric as a political resource that can earn them the public authority to challenge powerful opponents, both in bursts of direct legislative conflict and during the pursuit of long-range political goals. In my research comparing the successes of the contemporary marriage-equality and living-wage movements, I have found that creating a recognizable and persuasive argument in popular public discourse on the virtues of movement goals can be even more determinative of long-term and durable political change than discrete policy wins.

For example, until 2012, the marriage-equality movement had been subject to one legislative defeat after another. Thirty-three states passed constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage, and every time the issue was put on a ballot initiative, it lost. Still, while the movement was losing policy fights, it was winning the rhetorical war. Movement leaders deliberately worked to shift the domain of the gay marriage debate from the focus on personal difference to a focus on political equality, all the while keeping the issue front and center on the political agenda, even when they were taking a policy beating.

The living-wage movement, on the other hand, built an incredible network of organizations at municipal and state levels, allowing it to win the passage of over 120 new minimum wage ordinances across the country, but remained largely absent from the national political agenda and nearly invisible in popular public discourse. The result has been, according to sociologist Stephanie Luce, that after living wage ordinances are passed they are at high risk for going unimplemented. This is because small changes in the arrangements of local power can nullify the power brought to bear during legislative fights.

My theory is that this counterintuitive result is due to the absence of a generalized public discourse on the topic. Such discourses create awareness and direct attention to new issues, ensuring that they remain on the public agenda, forcing officials to account for their positions (whether for or against). The public gaze, which is focused by political discourse, keeps pressure on elected officials, which helps keep them accountable. This kind of attention does not ensure victory for political challengers, especially in the short term, but it does prevent their issues from slipping into obscurity, where hard-won legislative victories can turn out to be pyrrhic.

Candidate Obama seemed to understand what a powerful political resource rhetoric can be for political underdogs. He was able to demonstrate his own practical wisdom, virtue, and goodwill with a rhetoric that came across as sincere, in part, because it externalized those qualities. In the 119 unique campaign speeches I examined to discover whether Barack Obama used a consistent rhetorical approach, the candidate rarely declaimed his own virtue, but instead repeatedly insisted that practical wisdom, virtue, and good will were qualities that he witnessed in the American people as a whole. Obama repeatedly used a powerful retelling of “the American story” as one grounded not in the personal ingenuity of independent-minded entrepreneurs, but instead in the progress-oriented collective advocacy of common sense activists. In this way, he cast the engine of American progress as the project of a collectivity of underdogs, a collectivity of which, on his telling, he was but an example. Told this way, he and his supporters fit squarely in the center of the narrative historiography of the American mythos, giving his political campaign an air of gravitas and insurgency that kept supporters and detractors alike riveted by the political phenomenon.

The rise of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign showed the power of public authority gained through persuasive rhetoric in sharp relief. And the fact that the then-candidate’s rhetorical acumen was both a primary resource for his unlikely ascendance, as well as the favorite subject for recrimination from his political opponents, is telling. While the colloquial designation of a subject as “rhetorical” is meant to diminish the perception of its accuracy and importance, we know that, in practice, rhetoric is the only means by which communication with a mass public is possible. However, rhetoric is important not only because of the pragmatic limits of mass communication, but also, as Aristotle knew, because it is the art and heart of democratic persuasion, the process by which people make sense of and connect personally with a political world that they often do not view as central to their everyday lives.

One of the speeches that best exemplifies Obama’s ethotic style was delivered not in a moment of triumph, but one of defeat. The candidate had lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton, barely a week after an upset victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. In his concession speech, Obama was able to cast his loss in the frame of a familiar literary trope—the inevitable slump that afflicts the hero before the ultimate triumph that brings glory. However, Obama gave this trope a particularly democratic twist. He argued that it was not the twinkling of his own star that would lead his campaign to eventual victory, but instead the common sense activists who, in his version of “the American story,” have always populated the American public, guiding the nation toward its highest aims.

You know, a few weeks ago, no one imagined that we’d have accomplished what we did here tonight in New Hampshire. No one could have imagined it. For most of this campaign, we were far behind. We always knew our climb would be steep. But in record numbers, you came out, and you spoke up for change. And with your voices and your votes, you made it clear that at this moment, in this election, there is something happening in America.

Of course, the idea that something might be happening had already occurred to many people. It had been reported and speculated about in every news venue in the week intervening between the two primaries. Obama seemed to comprehend that although argument from ethos is about convincing the audience of one’s own good character, the surest way to make such an argument convincing is not to declaim one’s own virtue, but instead to reflect an understanding of the virtue of the audience who will judge. Or, as Aristotle explains, we are most kindly disposed toward “those who praise the presence of good qualities in others and especially the qualities that these people fear they do not really have.” (1381b)

There is something happening when men and women in Des Moines and Davenport, in Lebanon and Concord, come out in the snows of January to wait in lines that stretch block after block because they believe in what this country can be. There is something happening. There’s something happening when Americans who are young in age and in spirit, who’ve never participated in politics before, turn out in numbers we have never seen because they know in their hearts that this time must be different. There’s something happening when people vote not just for the party that they belong to, but the hopes that they hold in common. And whether we are rich or poor, black or white, Latino or Asian, whether we hail from Iowa or New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, we are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction. That’s what’s happening in America right now; change is what’s happening in America.

The discursive deftness of Obama’s 2008 campaign discourse was such that many people came to believe fervently in Obama’s own good character because he kept insisting that he believed in theirs. In the passage above, the candidate is able to convey his very practical and political need for the continued work of his supporters as an expression of a transcendent and ongoing necessity, not only or primarily to benefit himself, but instead to reinvigorate the civic vision, promise, and good judgment of “ordinary Americans” in the political process.

We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change. We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

This passage is tuned to make the listener feel a part of a common struggle. It has an oppositional feel. Obama identifies a powerful and unnamed “they” who will stand in the way of the change that America, on his telling, presumably wants, while assuring his audience that the “they,” though powerful, cannot triumph. He conveys that he knows this, not because he is a special political leader telling the audience about his own good qualities, but instead because he is a quintessential American, following, as are all his supporters, in the footsteps of those historical underdogs that we lionize in our national mythos: those that were savvy and brave enough to stand against the prevailing wisdom of their time and for the progress of the ages.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struckout from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can. It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality. Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.

Here, Obama makes political change sound effort-filled but achievable, even natural. In addition, the poetic historical sweep, which takes into account an arguably ideologically incoherent set of change agents, is overlaid with the sheen of coherent nobility. America, he communicates, is a nation built by audacious underdogs who could not be put off by the powerful and the petty. In this way, Obama was able to invert the usual relationships between official power and insurgent challenge. He argues that difference and resistance are the unifying themes of the American experience and recharacterizes losing as a necessary, transitory test before an eventual exultation that is not only possible but nearly inevitable.

The frequent criticism of Barack Obama as “merely rhetorical” rather than substantive, as if discursive power is somehow not “real,” is a neat encapsulation of the reason why it is so important to take rhetoric seriously in the study of politics, particularly for those of us interested in how political underdogs can make credible challenges to status quo arrangements of power and privilege. Barack Obama’s campaign was an innovative version of institutional electoral politics and not a social movement, but the way that the candidate used rhetoric to claim a credible space at the political table is nevertheless instructive. Social movements, like candidates, benefit from a combination of organizational strength and rhetorical savvy. A popular discourse on movement goals and issues, even when there is political backlash, can make all the difference in whether a political challenger has a chance against those who begin the contest with more resources and power. Public discussion tends to enlarge the scope of conflict, and as E. E. Schattschneider observed, the publicity of the competition is what gives the underdog a fighting chance. In this way, rhetoric can be used as a resource that helps to level the playing field in political contests.

* Lymari Morales, “Americans More Tuned in Than Ever to Political News,” Gallup (September 22, 2008).

Recommended Reading: “Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech,” New York Times, January 8, 2001:

Deva Woodly, Friends of the Institute for Advanced Study Member in the School of Social Science, is Assistant Professor at the New School. Her research focuses on the impact of civic discourse on democratic practice, especially from the point of view of ordinary citizens, political advocates, and social movements.