Politicians and Ethos

Persuasion depends, at least partially, on the notion of "ethos" I blogged about last week. We tend to trust too much or too little, granting speakers and organizations too much or too little "ethos" (reputation or standing) in public policy debates. It is natural, and probably unavoidable, that we trust people we consider more like ourselves too much and distrust people belonging to "the other" group by an even greater margin. As I mentioned previously, research shows we are really good at finding errors in the statements of the opposition, but quick to dismiss the errors of those we support.

When you do not trust a speaker or information source, then no matter how valid the argument might be it suffers from the lack of ethos. We do not trust our political leaders. When we do trust them, we only trust "our party" or our small segment of a party. I'm not a registered anything and I'm admittedly an equal opportunity cynic. The deep distrust and dislike I have for politicians is shared by most Americans.

On July 13, the following polling data were published:

HILL POLL: Politicians, Congress unethical — and getting worse
By Mike Lillis - 06/13/11 06:00 AM ET
More than two-thirds of voters think the ethical standards of politicians have declined over the past generation, and almost as many say Capitol Hill lawmakers are downright unscrupulous, according to the results of a new poll commissioned by The Hill.
A striking 68 percent of likely voters polled said the ethical standards of politicians have deteriorated in recent decades, while just 7 percent said they have improved during that time, the survey said.
I am not going to trust someone I describe as unethical. That should be pretty obvious. If more than two-thirds of voters believe our leaders are less and less ethical, yet we face serious issues, how can engage in a serious debate about those issues?

Another set of data, these from Gallup, have held remarkably steady since July 2010:
Only 11 percent of the country has confidence in the United States Congress, making it the lowest ranked institution in a new Gallup poll.
Among the 1,020 adults surveyed, Congress rates lower than banks, labor, big business and Health Maintenance Organizations.
Respondents also expressed very little confidence in the media, as only 25 percent have confidence in newspapers, 3 percentage points more than those who said the same of television news.
Twenty-three percent have confidence in banks, 20 percent in labor, 19 percent in Big Business and 19 percent in HMOs.
I can tell students that quantitative data and careful research should be given weight in debates, but my students rightly ask me about the sources reporting the data. When you don't trust the source, the research doesn't matter. Some people will never believe particular political leaders, media figures, news sources, et cetera. When your level of distrust is that deep, that ingrained, it becomes part of your emotional identity.

With such animosity and distrust in our culture, I'm not sure how effective any rhetorical methods can be. I have colleagues who refuse to read any economic writing and research from the business community. The few colleagues I have with business management experience refuse to trust any government data. The result? The various sides involved in economic debates won't consider each other's research or theories.

This type of binary division of communities is visible even at the local and state level. We seek out and want to live among people like ourselves. It is the "Big Sort" and it is altering public policy debates.

I'm wondering how I might teach students to overcome such deep and depressing divisions to effectively communicate. How can we teach rhetorical skills that do more than appeal to those predisposed to our personal perspectives? Or, have we become so stratified as a culture that bridging groups is no longer the aim of public discourse? Maybe our aim now is to motivate "the base" and ignore the opposing ideas entirely, except as the opposition might further excite our base to action?

Sadly, I do believe public policy debates have reached a point of "us vs. them" closer to religious battles than genuine discovery. No longer is persuasion and consensus the goal. The only goal is winning, even if we have to vilify opponents and add to the culture of cynicism.

I hope my students see the dangers in this. However, there's a homogeneity within most academic settings, too, that makes it too easy to caricature opposing views. The result? We unconsciously teach our students, through modeling, to dislike our leaders and national institutions. I'm sure my cynicism is obvious to students, too.

When I hear a student say that he or she "hates" politician or group X, I know that the student isn't going to seek consensus solutions to problems. When you declare "hate" for anyone or any group, you cannot be a good audience for the information presented.

I wish we I didn't hear the word "hate" so often, but the data I've cited above shows why I do hear it in political discussions and policy debates.

One of the approaches I've tried to challenge these biases is to hand out speeches or statements by politicians and swap the names, party affiliations, and so on, to prove to students that they apply their biases uncritically. Sure enough, if a great idea is attributed to a hated politician, the students will want to take the debate position that the idea is horrible. They evaluate ideas solely by the source and want to embrace only some sources.

Modern policy debates are reduced to team loyalties. Consider how the governors of two Midwest states are perceived by voters:
In PPP's poll of Wisconsin voters Feb. 24-27, [Scott] Walker had an approval rating of 86% among Republicans and 8% among Democrats, for a partisan approval gap of 78 points. In next door Minnesota, Democrats support Mark Dayton with an approval rating of 86%, while only 12% of Republicans support Dayton.
In other words, party loyalty is everything in our current environment. Governors once were "local" politicians with broad-based support. Now? Even statewide elections are about party and that shapes the vile political commercials, so-called policy debates, and the media punditry. People blindly support their team — and my students are no exception to this. They adore or hate politicians. There's almost no realistic middle ground. Emotions and reputation are everything — pathos and ethos.

When I finally reveal which statements are from which sources in reality, students are stunned. Yet, I have repeated the exercise at the end of a semester with nearly the same results. My point to students: our biases are stronger than our ability to reason. I'm always heartened by the few students who have, by the end of a semester, learned not to look at the source before evaluating an argument. I dream of the day when every student reaches that stage of critical thinking.

The ethos of speakers and sources will always affect our judgments. We at least need to understand the power of ethos, both positive and negative.


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