I am not going to address the merits of any politicians, political ideologies, or policies. My question goes to the kind of lens through which we look at all of them.
The Democratic National Convention began online last night. Its intent was explicitly to make a case for Biden/Harris against Trump/Pence. President Trump’s response was “it was a snooze.” In the face of a cascade of challenges to his leadership, he critiqued the Convention according to its quality as entertainment. This follows last week’s meeting of Jarrod Kushner with Kanye West to discuss his campaign. My concern is not that the President and his team think of politics as entertainment, but that they assume (rightly I suspect) that the electorate is primarily looking to be entertained. We have shown a growing tendency to choose our leaders from the entertainment industry. In a newspaper interview, one Bernie Sanders supporter last year said he liked Sanders because he was “loud and angry.” Quite a few Sanders supporters in the 2016 primaries voted for Trump in the general election. Hypothesis: they wanted “loud and angry” without caring overmuch about public policy. The journalistic response to last night’s convention has been more positive than the President’s but also somewhat similar, reviewing it as entertainment. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/analysis-hits-and-misses-from-monday-at-the-democratic-national-convention/ar-BB1857ov?li=BB141NW3
Statecraft is serious business. It’s as serious as a pandemic, serous as war and peace, serious as racial justice, gun violence, and hunger. But we are choosing our leaders based on how well they entertain us. I read somewhere a theory that people are fundamentally bored nowadays. Our desperate quest for diversion is a measure of our basic boredom with reality. If you will permit me a brief theological interpretation: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Swiss Jesuit theologian, argued that modern (post-Renaissance) Western civilization had lost a sense of the Transcendent, the height and depth of the human adventure that Dante portrayed in The Divine Comedy. Modern people have done well, he said, to discover the poignancy of personal experience; but we have reduced it to a flat road from birth to death, losing our sense that something of eternal significance is at play here. “If that’s all there is to a fire, then let’s keep dancing; let’s break out the booze.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNFe4nak-oM
There may be more mundane reasons politics has become shallow – I am not talking about our leaders. I am talking about us. Our leaders shape us a little, but they reflect us more. The mundane reasons include: Society is more complex, and we don’t want to make the greater effort now required to understand issues – better to have a passionate opinion than a thoughtful one because it takes less work. Another is that we are in a time of rapid change; change triggers anxiety; anxiety makes us regress out of our frontal lobes into our lower brain functions; so we feel more and think less. Another is that our current technology moves directly to triggering dopamine, etc., bypassing thought.
I suspect there’s truth to all of that, but I want to hold onto the larger issue of whether our decisions, our morality, whether we are just or unjust, kind or unkind to each other now has real significance. Are our souls at stake? As a Christian, I believe they are. The political process is not a Constitutionally protected religion-free zone. (The Constitution to the contrary protects the right of Churches to speak and petition the state for “redress of grievance”. What it forbids is the State establishing and thereby controlling a Church.) Politics is an all too human process whereby we may be degraded but may also be sanctified.
What then are the consequences for political rhetoric? Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, arose with the birth of democracy in Athens. Absent democracy, there was no real need for persuasion, only the power to command. But democracy, even a limited democracy like Athens, led to people needing to persuade people. It upped the ante of human communication.
Ancient philosophy took rhetoric seriously because it was the means and method of something of deep importance, Justice. Aristotle wrote[i] Antiquity’s most famous study of rhetoric, cleverly titled, Rhetoric. Aristotle was interested in good rhetoric, which was not just effective persuasion, but rhetoric that contributed to justice. He gave us three simple elements of good rhetoric: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. As we enter the campaign season, those elements bear a little attention.
Logos of course is the source of “logic.” But it isn’t just cold reasoning. Logos was a heavy and holy word for Ancient Greece. Remember the Prologue to John, In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. So Logos is first and foremost the Truth! As we see and hear messages about politics this Fall, paying close attention to Snopes and other fact checkers would be a good idea. We know foreign powers plan to sway our views with false reports. We recently had a meme about Portland protestors burning a stack of Bibles with an American flag on top. Entertaining. Outrageous. To the barricades, we feel. But actually one Portland protestor burned one Bible, no flag. It appears to be one of those interferences from beyond our borders. We should check the facts before getting overly excited. Logos is about Truth and Reason. As Anglicans, we believe in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. This isn’t just cold logic, but it does involve some thinking. Thinking is more sanctifying than fear and loathing. Good rhetoric thinks. Are the people speaking to us just entertaining or are they thinking?
Now here’s a lesson I’ve learned all too well over the years. There’s the speech you give and there’s the speech they hear. Sometimes those speeches resemble each other. But here’s my point: one side of rhetoric is speaking but the other side is listening. So just as we’d like our leaders to think, not just entertain, we need to think too. Whether the speech or the meme is thoughtful or not, it is always an opportunity for us to be thoughtful and that is sanctifying.
Pathos means feeling. It is the root of empathy. So it isn’t just any feeling. It’s caring. Pathos isn’t just emotional titillation like a reality tv show. It’s about the feeling level of being a community, a polis Aristotle called it. Too much political rhetoric today appeals to our baser emotions, our fear and loathing. Aristotle would not call that good rhetoric because it makes us worse instead of better. Good rhetoric is about caring for others. Again, we hope our leaders will speak out of caring hearts. But whether they do or not, whatever they say, it is an opportunity for us to care and that is sanctifying.
Ethos, the root of “ethics,” means the character of the speaker. Aristotle’s definition of good rhetoric has been summed up as “a good person speaking well.” No matter who eloquent the speaker may be, it is phony and false unless it comes from a good character. Not only should the speaker be convincing because we trust his or her character, the speaker should be calling us to grow better characters, to become more prudent, strong, just, and temperate (the classical virtues). So, as we listen to our candidates, it is good to keep an eye on who they are inviting us to become.
In the various responses to the Democratic Convention, positive and negative alike, I have heard little about Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. It’s been more of a question of how entertaining was it. If the test is entertainment, then let’s replace the debate with a singing, standup comedy, and tapdancing competition. But if we want to be community instead of an audience, we should attend to the Logos, Pathos, and Ethos of whatever we see and hear in a campaign season. My hope is not so much for who wins as for who we become.
[i] Actually he gave a series of lectures. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is actually the notes taken by his students.