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Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

The most effective speakers use positive emotions to persuade.  You can witness this truism in action in Michelle Obama’s speech from the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

The convention got off to a rocky start.  Many were outraged at revelations over the weekend stoking the darkest suspicions of Bernie Sanders’ supporters that the Democratic National Committee unfairly favored Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  The leaked e-mails hit squarely at Clinton’s Achilles heel—the sense that she isn’t trustworthy.  Some Sanders supporters made their fury known, booing at the mention of Clinton’s name and drowning out speakers throughout the first part of the convention.

The organizers of the convention tried to tamp down the anger through music (done quite effectively via a surprise visit by Paul Simon) and through comedy, offered (somewhat less effectively) by Senator Al Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman.  When Silverman, a former Sanders supporter, took the stage (accompanied by Franken) to offer brief remarks about why she now supports Clinton, some in the crowd were vocal with their displeasure.  Franken and Silverman then found themselves in the awkward position of having to stall for time prior to Paul Simon’s appearance.  In exasperation with the unruly crowd, a visibly frustrated Silverman said, “To the Bernie or Bust crowd: you’re being ridiculous.”  Silverman’s reaction to the crowd was understandable, but the moment provides a perfect illustration of the point we have made in a previous post:  You won’t persuade people by scolding them.  This may have persuaded Clinton’s supporters, but Sanders’ supporters continued to jeer.

Paul Simon quieted and briefly united the convention crowd by singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  But it was Michelle Obama who moved the divided audience to cheers.

Michelle Obama had two goals: to inspire Clinton’s supporters and to persuade Sanders’ supporters to offer her their support.  It was clear from the experiences of the speakers who came before her that she would need to say something to meet the emotional needs of the Sanders supporters before she could make an argument on behalf of Clinton.  If she didn’t, they were likely to drown her out.

So Mrs. Obama began with a theme that everyone in the room would be likely to support:  the Obamas’ desire to be positive role models for their girls.  The Obama family is quite popular, particularly among Democrats.  What Bernie supporter would boo the image of the young Obama daughters, “the heart of our hearts,” as they headed out for their first day at their new school after moving into the White House?

“I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns.  And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, what have we done?”

With that image, Mrs. Obama got the audience hooked.  They were listening.  They were imagining those girls listening, too.  Mrs. Obama went on to explain that their children, and all the children in the country, look to their leaders to understand how to behave in the world.

“That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

This was an important rhetorical moment in Mrs. Obama’s speech and an effective use of pathos.  She calmed the crowd with the image of her beloved girls; she made her supporters feel proud by reminding them of how she and her husband consistently keep their composure under stress; and then she inspired them with the challenge to “go high” rather than go negative.  Sanders supporters in the convention hall laughed and applauded just as the Clinton supporters did at these words.  Mrs. Obama reset the mood of the audience, putting them in a more receptive frame of mind to listen to her arguments on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

The remainder of the speech was a logos-based argument in support of Clinton’s candidacy.  In support of this argument, Mrs. Obama articulated Clinton’s extensive record of public service, her decades-long support of various Democratic causes, and evidence of her strength and tenacity.

More importantly, Mrs. Obama worked to repair some of the damage to Hillary Clinton’s ethos.  According to Aristotle, ethos requires calm, good sense, and good judgment.  Michelle Obama described Hillary Clinton in just those terms.  She referenced Chelsea Clinton, “who she has raised to perfection.”  She pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s reaction to losing the nomination in 2008 as evidence of her good will and level-headedness:

“And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned. Hillary did not pack up and go home, because as a true public servant Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires and disappointments. So she proudly stepped up to serve our country once again as secretary of state, traveling the globe to keep our kids safe. And look, there were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing. What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

That grace under pressure is an essential part of ethos, and Mrs. Obama pointed to it as an essential quality for a president:

“Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.”

The final moments of Mrs. Obama’s speech returned to pathos-laden images, connecting Hillary Clinton to the sweep of American history and succinctly offering the reason that Hillary Clinton has inspired many of her followers:

“Leaders like Hillary Clinton who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.  That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.  And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.  And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

She ended with a call for unity, and also a positive message—pride in and hope for America:

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

The first day of the convention included several powerhouse speeches by Democratic favorites such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.  But Michelle Obama’s speech stood out for its exemplary use of pathos to calm and persuade an angry crowd.


Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

What should you watch for in the coming debates between the two presidential candidates? Here’s what Aristotle might say.

Aristotle is one of the first people on the planet to write about how verbal persuasion works, and his formulation in “The Rhetoric” continues to provide useful guidance to aspiring orators. Aristotle said a speaker persuades using three tools:

Ethos, or credibility. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character, when the speech is spoken as to make us think him more credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: Good sense, good moral character, and good will.” If you trust and like a speaker, you are more likely to believe him or her.

Pathos, or emotional engagement. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” A speaker who is able to get the audience to care about what she says is more persuasive.

Logos, or logic. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” To persuade listeners, a speaker’s logic must be clear and easy to follow.

Hillary Clinton

Ethos: Ethos is both Clinton’s greatest strength and at the same time her greatest vulnerability. To be credible, a speaker must know about a topic. Clinton has tremendous experience through her service as a U.S. senator, the secretary of state, and as the first lady. As President Obama said in his endorsement of her, “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” She is tough, intelligent and clearly understands the importance of preparation — witness, for example, her performance during the 11-hour hearing by the Senate’s Select Committee on Benghazi, in which she displayed a mastery of facts and policy. When Clinton speaks, her preparation and experience cloak her in authority.

But Clinton also comes to this election weighed down by the baggage of many years in the public eye. Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” is a direct attack on her ethos, and reminds the public of various ethics-related accusations made against Clinton or her husband, such as stories about foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the impeachment of her husband arising out of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Even when allegations of ethical misdeeds have proved unfounded, the sense that the Clintons are shady characters has stuck. This is an ethos problem; to counteract it, Clinton would be wise to be as forthcoming and frank as possible in all her campaign appearances.

Pathos: This is another area of both strength and weakness for Clinton. In the plus column, Clinton’s nomination for the presidency is a historic moment. She is the first female candidate nominated by a major political party. The prospect of a woman shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” has galvanized many supporters and packs an emotional punch.

But Clinton also triggers strongly negative emotions in those who oppose her. “I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” says one Trump supporter. Some of the vitriol aimed at Clinton bears a decidedly misogynistic tone — she has been labeled a shrew, a bitch, a harpy and a castrator (“I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air,” said Tucker Carlson).

Clinton also lacks the rhetorical skills of her husband or President Obama. Her delivery can be alternately flat or irritable, and she appears more comfortable with logical arguments than with emotional appeals. This is not universally the case, though — witness her fine victory speech as the presumptive nominee, which you can watch here. To be at her most persuasive, Clinton should aim for this level of emotional engagement in all her speeches.

Logos. In this area, Clinton shines. She has a lawyer’s mind, and knows how to make a logical, clear argument. We expect Clinton to show great strength in the debates in the area of logos.

Donald Trump

Ethos: Trump’s supporters find him to be credible because they believe he has business acumen and “tells it like it is.” Trump is willing to say things that are not politically correct; consequently, he appears frank and authentic to those who support him.

However, Trump lacks experience in governing. He has never held an elected office. He has no foreign policy experience. To maintain credibility, he will need to show how his business experience qualifies him for the position of president.

Finally, many Americans believe Trump lacks the “good moral sense” and “good will” that are foundational to Aristotle’s concept of ethos. He has a complicated backstory — he runs gambling casinos, has a history of marital infidelity and has been less than forthright about his own business success. And rather than demonstrate goodwill, he routinely denigrates those who disagree with him with xenophobic, racist and sexist attacks (a woman is a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting” or a “beautiful piece of ass”; Mexicans are “rapists” bringing drugs; a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump cannot be objective because his parents emigrated from Mexico; Muslims should be banned from entering the country). Without a moral center, it is difficult to achieve ethos.

Pathos: During the primary race, Trump has done a better job than Clinton at galvanizing his supporters. His campaign appearances are marked by the high energy and enthusiasm of his followers. He is able to get his crowds to laugh and to cheer.

But he has also demonstrated the dark side of emotional engagement by fanning the flames of bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. Plato warned against the teaching of rhetoric for precisely this sort of reason — he worried that it could be used to inflame a mob. Euripides described the problem like this: “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.” If he hopes to become presidential, Trump should drop the inflammatory language. He is charismatic enough to keep his listeners engaged without resorting to hate-filled discourse. (We promise a more complete analysis of the dark side of pathos in a future blog post.)

Logos: Trump’s proposals during the primaries have been largely devoid of any substance on which his logos could be judged. However, he uses plain language that listeners can easily follow, even if it is not always logical. He has gotten into trouble for making bombastic statements (such as when he said women should be punished if they get abortions), that he has later retracted. He will have to fill in the details of his proposals and lay them out clearly to the American people if he wants to succeed in his campaign.

Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Verbal persuasion is an empowering skill. If you know how to speak persuasively, you can shine both professionally and personally. There is nothing quite like the feeling of speaking well and being heard.

This blog, and our book, “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion,” examine how rhetoric works. We are law school professors from the University of Virginia who teach advocacy, rhetoric, and negotiations. But our interest in oratory is not limited to the world of lawyers. We believe that anyone can — and should — learn to speak effectively.

Verbal persuasion also plays an essential role in the proper functioning of a healthy democracy. Government “by the people” requires that the people be involved — that they possess some basic understanding of how to speak to one another, and how to evaluate what others are saying. Debate — even sometimes contentious, unpleasant debate — is the way we hash out ideas.

The 2016 presidential campaign season is upon us, offering the perfect laboratory for examining the inner workings of verbal persuasion. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debate of your own with friends and family. If you understand rhetoric, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make successful arguments yourself.

What can you learn about rhetoric from the 2016 presidential race? Has this race changed all the rules? Our answer: No.

From time to time, we will offer rhetorical analysis on this blog. The point of this exercise is not to express opinions about the candidate’s political positions; instead, we will evaluate how the candidates express and explain their ideas.