"Some to the common pulpits and cry out": Political Rhetoric (Part 1)

Every four years, it becomes a really great time to be a rhetoric geek.

My head got turned to this topic by an article from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Affairs detailing the differences in structure between Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week and Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention the week before. As measured by the Flesh-Kincaid readability levels, Ann Romney “set a record for delivering a speech written at the lowest grade level in convention history by the wives of presidential nominees,” speaking on a 5th-grade reading level, while Michelle Obama broke the record for highest grade level in a spousal convention speech, above the 12th-grade level. Flesh-Kincaid mainly measures by words in a sentence and syllables in a word, looking at those complexities to determine readability. Despite this higher difficulty level, however, Mrs. Obama received rave reviews of her speech, even from conservatives. Though pundits and audiences alike gave both women favorable ratings, Michelle Obama’s speech seems to have had broader appeal, in spite of — or perhaps because of — its greater complexity.

Looking at Wordles of the two speeches reveals that the higher rating for Mrs. Obama seems to come from longer sentences and more complex sentence structure, not necessarily more difficult or more polysyllabic words. Both speeches have accessible vocabulary, and, as is so often the case with political speeches, they share a lot of key words between them. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama both also have idiosyncratic verbal tics that slip into their sentences — for Mrs. Romney, it’s “just;” for Mrs. Obama, “you see.”

Ann Romney’s speech at the RNC, 28 August 2012
Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC, 4 September 2012
In addition to the lower Flesh-Kincaid rating, Mrs. Romney’s speech is also rhetorically simpler. She uses a lot of repetition — not in of itself a bad thing. Devices of repetition can be hugely significant and, when used skillfully, immensely persuasive. But Mrs. Romney failed to structure her repetitions in a fruitful way. They come either at rote, simple anaphora at the beginning of successive phrases, unmatched with any devices of direction like auxesis or chiasmus that could drive a persuasive point, or else they come at random, entirely devoid of pattern. This method of structuring a speech actually fights against the brain. If you intentionally break a pattern, the brain will latch on to the “one of these things that’s not like the other;” if you never set a clear pattern to begin with, however, the brain will spend a lot of energy trying to figure it out or to force one — and that can be subconsciously frustrating. The brain likes harmony, and when devices of repetition set it up to expect a pattern but none emerges, that discord can create negative emotions rather than positive ones.

Her devices of addition also create a similar problem. While doing the markup of Ann Romney’s speech, I sometimes found it difficult to find the end of a parenthetical phrase. The delineation between main thought and sidebar was not always clear. That lack of distinction is something else that challenges the brain in a non-productive way; when it has to work too hard to untangle a sentence’s syntax, it stops listening to what meaning those words are actually conveying. That can be an effective speaking technique if (like Claudius in 1.2 of Hamlet), you want to obscure your main point — but it’s hardly the goal of a speech at a national political convention. A little like Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mrs. Romney at points gives the impression of a speech that is “like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered.” Where Mrs. Romney’s speech succeeds is in arranging contrast. Many of her arguments follow a “not this, but this” structure, which can be particularly persuasive in a political context, since it pits one set of ideas (and ideals) neatly opposite another.

Mrs. Obama’s speech uses many of the same devices, but structured with a more clearly delineated system of rise and fall. She uses isocolon (parallel structure) and auxesis (the arrangement of a series) to particularly good effect several times. Her devices of addition tend to be in the form of superlative descriptors rather than tangential parentheses. She uses anaphora, but in a more condensed format than Mrs. Romney does. Ann Romney began a series of paragraphs with “You know” and then “I want to talk to you about,” but these paragraphs were of uneven length, often with other matter in between, weakening the effect of the repetitive device. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, tended to use shorter sequences closer together, as when she said, “Every day, the people I meet inspire me. Every day, they make me proud. Every day, they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth.” In this way, Mrs. Obama links the anaphora together with tricolon, the power of three, and with auxesis, building from one idea to the next to the greatest. These devices, particularly when yoked together, give the brain a sense of harmony to appreciate, subconsciously making the listener more receptive to the speaker’s ideas. Mrs. Obama also uses more rhetorical questions than Mrs. Romney, giving the audience greater opportunity to enter into a dialogue, even if only imagined, with her — another tactic that draws a listener in and creates a kind of alliance. Mrs. Obama’s greatest rhetorical weakness is probably an over-reliance on polysyndeton — excessive conjunctions, particularly at the beginnings of sentences. It’s another way of verbalizing a pause, and it tends to be more noticeable when looking at the speech on paper than when actually listening to it.

The differences between these two speeches made me think of Brutus and Antony in Julius Caesar. After killing Caesar, Brutus enters to explain his actions to the plebeian mobs. It is the only point in the play where he talks in prose rather than in verse. Prose and verse do not always point to a class difference — in plays such as As You Like It, high-status characters often speak in prose — but in Julius Caesar, the split is fairly distinct, with the commoners speaking in prose and the aristocrats speaking in verse. Brutus talks to the plebs on their level. Antony, on the other hand, doesn’t talk down to the plebs — he stays in verse and uses elegant language, but he does so in such a way that renders the increased complexity ultimately more persuasive.

Out of curiosity, I ran Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches through a Flesh-Kincaid analysis. Brutus comes in at a mid-7th grade reading level, Antony at a high-9th. (Both are above the play’s average of a mid-6th grade level). What I like about this analysis is that it demonstrates something phenomenal about rhetoric: it’s not just the words, but also the structure in which you place those words that matters. Check out the Wordles for each speech:

Brutus’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, 3.2

Antony’s eulogy, Julius Caesar, 3.2

Neither character uses terribly difficult vocabulary. Antony’s higher grade level comes more from longer and more complex sentences than from polysyllabic words. Yet something about Antony’s speech grips an audience more, despite the higher difficulty and the verse structure. His rhetoric allows him to bring the audience along on a point, rather than badgering them as Brutus does, and so we are more likely to feel “on his side.” He doesn’t have to talk down to us to be one of us.

As a side note, the analyzer I used also provided some suggestions for improving readability, advising me to look at altering the following phrases,which made me think about what beauty of language and what persuasive power might be gained or lost by restructuring for easier comprehension:

“Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge”
“The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences enforced, for which he suffered death.”
“You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?”
“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man.”

There’s also an appeal to pathos, another, less quantifiable aspect of rhetoric, in Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches that I heard reflected in Ann Romney’s and Michelle Obama’s. Pathos is the appeal to emotion. This appeal involves the speaker knowing his audience and what will appeal to them on a personal level. Values, morals, fears, and affections may all play a part in a pathetic appeal. At its most basic level, pathos is when a speaker makes the argument all about the audience, rather than about objective fact or about himself. Brutus and Ann Romney both appeal to the red button words — for Brutus, “honor,” “valor,” “wisdom,” “love;” for Mrs. Romney, “America,” “moms,” “hard work,” and, again, “love” — by way of getting to their audiences’ hearts. Consider the following selection from Brutus’s speech:

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

And now this selection from Ann Romney’s:

I don’t think there’s a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy. In our own way, we all know better! And that’s fine. We don’t want easy. But these last few years have been harder than they needed to be. It’s all the little things — that price at the pump you just can’t believe, the grocery bills that just get bigger, all those things that used to be free, like school sports, are now one more bill to pay. It’s all the little things that pile up to become big things. And the big things — the good jobs, the chance at college, that home you want to buy, just get harder. Everything has become harder.

The appeal in each speech is broad, designed to reach as many people as possible. The speakers hit the points that they believe matter most to their audience, and they do so in a way that makes it all about that you, the listener, rather than about the speaker. On the surface, this technique seems like it ought to be an effective tactic. It feels inclusive, and it demonstrates that the speaker knows what the audience cares about.
So why is it that the method taken by Antony and by Michelle Obama seems to generate greater emotional response?

Look at this selection from Antony’s speech:

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
‘Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!

And now this from Michelle Obama’s:

I loved Barack just the way he was. You see, even back then, when Barack was a Senator and presidential candidate, to me, he was still the guy who picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door. He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was a half size too small. But see, when Barack started telling me about his family, now that’s when I knew I’d found in him a kindred spirit — someone whose values and upbringing were so like mine.

Though the subject matter is vastly different, the approach is similar: draw the audience in with specific moments, rather than broad subjects. Antony talks about what he remembers, but links it to the audience’s observations, and then he draws an explicit picture of Caesar’s death for those who were not there to see it. Mrs. Obama begins with her personal recollections, so specific that they could belong to no one else, then moves into more abstract values only once she has that grounding. Personal anecdotes, more than sweeping generalizations, tend to strike a greater emotional chord — even if those generalizations are the red button words that people tend to key in on. Brutus wasn’t wrong to mention honor and valor, any more than Ann Romney was wrong to mention America and motherhood. But where Antony and Michelle Obama outstrip their opposite numbers is in the details — in making the subjects of their speeches (Caesar and Barack Obama, respectively) more personal and relatable to all of their listeners, no matter how removed or lowly. Antony and Michelle Obama evoke pictures of minute details rather than painting with a brush so broad as to remove the scenery entirely. Even at her most specific, Ann Romney refers to periods of life, things that could have happened at any time or in any place, rather than giving the sense that she has one moment crystalized in her mind. Pathos works more effectively when the audience can feel a speaker’s passion, and specific details enhance that sense, while generalizations obliterate it, but it also gains persuasive power when mated with that touch of ethos, the personal credentials and evidence of experience. Blending the two appeals together buttresses one type of persuasion with the other, and this multi-faceted approach often has the ability to reach more people with greater potency.

I’m thrilled that the election cycle draws greater attention to eloquence and elocution. You don’t have to perform a Flesh-Kincaid analysis on every speech you hear. You don’t have to do a R.O.A.D.S. markup (unless you’re like me and it simply amuses you to do so). You don’t even have to own this awareness of rhetoric to know what it is that you like about one speech and what fails to grab you about another. But knowing rhetoric will help. As I tell students (of all ages) every time I lead our Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric workshop, this awareness, even on a basic level, will just plain make you smarter. It makes you a better writer and speaker, but it also makes you a better listener, and that may be even more important on a day-to-day basis.

I love rhetoric, and as I said at the top of the post, election years are an excellent time to have that fascination. We listen more acutely during this time than is usual, and the media draws more attention to how politicians get their points across, because good ideas alone won’t carry the day — a candidate must be able to express those ideas in a way that appeals and persuades. So in honor of this, I’ll be posting an ongoing series of Political Rhetoric posts. Next up, hopefully: How much of President Clinton’s famous charisma is rooted in his rhetoric? How does that help a politician work a crowd? We’ve already seen a bit from Antony, but I would like to look at some of the great speakers of the history plays: Buckingham, Talbot, Henrys IV and V, Richards II and III. Who uses rhetoric to connect with the audience, and who ends up isolating himself?

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