(Sad) Rhetoric Lessons from the Campaign Trail

The campaign season has provided discussion topics for my writing and philosophy courses, with students trying to understand and explain what they've been witnessing. As you might imagine, they are cynical about politics, but they are involved in their local communities. They do manage to separate the national (and some local) political theater from what government does. Last week, a student observed that it was much easier to be ignorant than to consider the way political campaigns shape messages.

I keep telling myself that this blog would be a great place to share weekly, or even daily, curmudgeonly rants on public policy rhetoric. Yet, like my students I find it almost painful to ponder the sad state of public discourse.

We can discuss logical fallacies and outright misstatements every class meeting and not exhaust material from local, state, and federal elections. It would take days to explore the problems with speeches by both major presidential candidates. Senate campaigns are a bit better, while House races seem significantly worse than the presidential race. My students have suggested local races are the worst examples of public discourse. I wish I could disagree, but the fliers and commercials students share are pretty disheartening.

With a long list of fact-checking organizations, including partisan fact-checkers like Media Matters and Newsbusters, it is easy for students to conclude that no politician tells the truth. Information on political consultants specializing in neuro-psychology, linguistics, and behavioral economics reminds students that "free will" isn't so free. When we discuss the ethics of campaigns, the debate is not if ethics are lacking, but instead we find classes arguing over which campaigns are the worst among a lousy sample.

I try to encourage students to be critical thinkers and to analyze every political statement, commercial, and staged event. It is tempting to criticize "the other side" and not be critical enough of those we support. That's not a problem this year, though. My students are disgusted, yet informed and engaged. They see through the games, and it leaves them without much faith in our system.

When I ask students to consider the rhetoric of science and technology in the campaigns, there isn't a clear "winner" or "loser" when it comes to the truth. Discussions of green energy, environmental policy, healthcare, global warming, space exploration, and dozens of other topics reveal that our national leaders often use facts selectively, caring more about winning elections than promoting true science understanding. Each major party has its scientific "truths" that are either blatantly mistaken or intentionally misleading. We're stuck trying to decide which side is least bad at representing science and technology to the public. Sometimes, there is clear "wrong" in science; issues like evolution demonstrate that politicians can be as ill-informed about science as the general public.

At least my students do follow the public policy debates. They don't believe there will be any real effort to address policy issues, though. Instead, they view politics as a sport, with a winning team and losing team.

There never was a "good ol' days" when political discourse was elevated and campaigns were about facts. But, we can dream it might happen.


Popular Posts