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Is rhetoric necessary to win at politics?

I have been spending a bit of time in Foyles, recently. It is my favourite bookshop in London for the vastness of its selection, though if any readers know better I am all ears. It does contain, however, the bookshelf from Room 101:


Can you imagine what kind of dinner party guests these authors would make? Just look at the blurb on the back of the Fischer book:

In recent years a set of radical new approaches to public policy, drawing on discursive analysis and participatory deliberative practices, have come to challenge the dominant technocratic, empiricist models in policy analysis. In his major new book Frank Fischer brings together these various new approaches for the first time and critically examines them. The book will be required reading for anyone studying, researching, or formulating public policy.

Required, good and hard, as punishment for being involved in such a dismal endeavor, perhaps. Opaque writing like this always makes me wonder if there is real content to be dug up. I had a quick look inside. Irritatingly, from the point of view of trying to poke fun, I found (on page 170) what might be some insight.

It is common in politics to portray our opponents as engaging only in ‘rhetoric’: that is, concealing the real story, they offer us a version of events constructed to promote their own interests and concerns. Missing from this view, however, is the recognition that all politics operates this way. Symbolic representation, in short, is basic to political argumentation. […] An important feature of symbols is their potential ambiguity. Symbols often typically mean two (or more) things at the same time: ‘equal opportunity in education can either giving everybody tuition vouchers for the same dollar amount’, or it can mean ‘providing extra resources for those with special needs’


For the empiricist conception of science, of course, this is problematic. The interpretation of events, social as well as physical, has to remain clear and constant for the work of the empiricist.

I have written before about the problem of language being used deliberately to muddy thinking. It seems likely that, since libertarianism is correct, looking at the world empirically leads inevitably to it. Therefore libertarians are likely to be empiricists. And bad at rhetoric, and therefore bad at winning at politics. (And often more interested in more empirical pursuits, like building rockets.)

Can we possibly beat them at their own game? I used to think that just sticking to the facts of the matter in debate would be good enough. That on-the-fence observers would detect who was making the most sense and pick the right side. I am starting to think that rhetoric has its place: if you really want to convince people, and, empirically, people are convinced by rhetoric, perhaps it is unavoidable.

Vox Day, in what amounts to a manual for beating Them at Their own game, wrote a whole chapter on it. He quoted Aristotle: “Before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are some people whom one cannot instruct.” Mr Day goes on to explain:

I strongly prefer communicating in dialectic myself, but that is a language reserved for those who are intellectually honest and capable of changing their minds on the basis of information. So I speak dialectic to those capable of communicating on that level, and I speak rhetoric to those who are not.

Before I even opened the Fischer book I found myself writing, in a Facebook discussion about heavily drinking relatives who had nonetheless lived to a grand old age, in response to others who complained that this was mere anecdote: “Anecdote is not evidence but it *is* rhetoric, and you need to develop good rhetoric to win at politics.” I am beginning to see how I might start to use rhetoric without feeling dirty, as a means to a well-intended end. I am not sure whether I would be any good at it, though. Worse, I sense that it is the road to hell.

38 comments to Is rhetoric necessary to win at politics?

  • Alsadius

    Trying to achieve success at politics is about convincing people that your worldview is right. Some people are convinced by logic, some by emotion, some by wit, some by spite – there’s a million ways. Only using one of them is not a good way to be successful. There’s a reason we celebrate Reagan, despite his largely mediocre record – he was one of the best at convincing people of the right things, even if he didn’t always do the right things.

  • rxc

    As an engineer, I am instinctively minded to follow the path of evidence and logic in making an argument, but I have learned that for many issues, this is far, far, from sufficient. When your opponents take over the language and use words in ways that are difficult to comprehend or that are contrary to any ordinary understanding of them, then the rhetoric turns into a cess-pool that produces very little that is useful.

    I think one reason this has occurred because there is too much interest (everywhere on the political spectrum) in having “science” support public policy agendas. On its face, we should want public policy to be informed by science. However, we end up with a variation on Gresham’s Law, where bad science drives out good science, in the interest of making public policy that is driven by political interest.

    The explosion in “social science” and a lot of the epidemological health “research” results are the best examples of this. And the chattering classes make it worse, by talking about stuff they don’t understand, misusing words, concepts, and statistics, and confusing/scaring the hell out of the general populace, who have no idea what is going on.

    Anecdotes can become data points, if they can be reproduced. Data is/are good, good data is/are even better, and lots of good data is/are best. If we could get the pseudo-sciences to adhere to the standards for science that are used by the physicists and chemists, then I think that a lot of the junk could be jettisoned.

  • QET

    Vico was lamenting the disappearance of training in rhetoric and the deleterious effects thereof in 1702.

  • Phil B

    Tut tut! That’s a racist way of looking at things that you actually, y’know, need logic, rational thought and a coherent presentation of the facts.

    As a “for Example”, the Cross Examination Debate Associations female team winners for 2014 from an American University can be seen being interviewed here by a gushing female reporter here:


    If you can bear to watch the whole “debate” then it is here:


    You would have to be a severe masochist to do so but as one of the worst crimes in the pantheon of thought crimes is to be judgemental, who am I to judge just how masochistic you are?

    If you question if a debate actually took place and/or don’t agree that these two women rightly won the debate, then you are racist, sexist and need to check your white privilege. Or something …

  • QET

    @ rxc

    I think your allusion to Gresham’s Law is right on. Bertrand Russell observed in 1931 that in the advance of science less and less is found to be data and more and more is found to be inference. I think that the modern US (and maybe UK, too, I don’t know) “social sciences” (your irony quotes are apt) have always been vastly more inference than data. In fact, as far as I can tell most of the so-called data consists of nothing but responses to survey questionnaires. No matter that these are presented in tabular forms and numeralized via a Likert scale or the like so that the “scientist” can have some software his department purchased spit out a ream of statistical computations on this “data” in time for him to meet the journal’s submission deadline, this “data” is in fact nothing more than anecdotes atomized. More “experimental” work like the notorious Milgram experiment involves placing people in highly contrived and managed situations and then believing that their contrived and managed behaviors correspond to human behavior outside of the laboratory (and lately it is being noticed, finally, that almost every one of these “experiments” cannot be duplicated).

    The fundamental problem is that the methods of natural science are useless for developing true knowledge concerning human motivation and behavior (at least in its interesting aspects; recall that Popper said that he didn’t want just “truth”; he wanted interesting truth). So I don’t think your suggestion about more rigorously applying the methods of natural science can result in anything of value. Social scientists have spent generations learning how to present the appearance of science and that has become such a demanding discipline in itself that they rarely have time to advance knowledge.

  • William H. Stoddard

    As I understand it, Aristotle taught that where dialectic and demonstration rely on syllogisms, rhetoric relies on enthymeme (incompletely stated syllogisms with some assumptiont take for granted); and where they rely on induction, rhetoric relies on striking examples.

    One of the hazards of using dialectic can be seen in an incident involving Vox Day: He wrote a column that said that if you believe in utilitarianism and empiricism, you can perfectly well justify throwing acid in schoolgirls’ faces, as contributing to social consensus and stability; whereas, he said, he believed in divinely revealed right and wrong. In the aftermath, it has come to be nearly universally believed that Vox Day advocated throwing acid in schoolgirls’ faces—the thing he attributed to his adversaries as a reductio ad absurdum.

  • Laird

    A lot of interesting comment here already. I very much like rxc’s invocation of Gresham’s Law in this context.* But as to his comment “then the rhetoric turns into a cess-pool that produces very little that is useful”, well, the depends upon your definition of “useful”, doesn’t it? The application of technical language, or jargon, or simple gibberish, as a tool to obfuscate is very much “useful” to those trying to advance a particular cause which, rationally, should be summarily rejected by thinking persons. Which is why it is so frequently used by leftists.

    By “rhetoric” I think Rob Fisher is really talking about an appeal to emotions. Some people are motivated almost entirely by emotion, and for many others it’s an easy means of getting them to bypass rationality. It works very well, on almost everybody (depending upon the issue, of course), and it is a foolish (and probably unsuccessful) politician who ignores or rejects that approach. If you want to win you have to use all the tools at your disposal, and “rhetoric” (or emotion) is an important one.

    * Gresham’s Law is actually a remarkably deep concept and useful in many situations. I frequently use a what I call my corollary to it, “bad charity drives out good”, as an argument against governmental (and quasi-governmental) welfare programs and in favor of private charity.

  • Cristina

    QET, I love your comment at 8:53 pm. 🙂

  • CaptDMO

    Everything I needed to know about rhetoric* I learned as a child, from Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fables, and Mad Libs.
    It took a bit longer to recognize that rhetoric’s most…um…hydrophobic** practitioners were immunized against logic.
    *Also SEE: Poli Sci, Anthro, courting, Pscych, (anything) addiction, integrity, and Global Warming.
    **See, I weaseled the “-phobia” implication in there somehow.

  • Alex


    I frequently use a what I call my corollary to it, “bad charity drives out good”, as an argument against governmental (and quasi-governmental) welfare programs and in favor of private charity.

    Brilliant. I shall make use of this!

  • RRS

    The important “institutions” were ideas, words, rhetoric, ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment. What changed circa 1700 was a climate of persuasion, which led promptly to the amazing reflection, entrepreneurship, and pluralism called the modern world.



    H/T Arnold Kling @ AskBlog

    The term (Rhetoric)is a running theme through the current McCloskey Bourgeois series.

    If betterment is the objective of the Win at Politics, Rhetoric (in some form) is probably a necessary element in most issues. If the objectives of the Win are the predominance of interests, then, deceptions in creating perceptions may be adequate or requisite.

  • lucklucky

    One of problems of Libertarians is that they don’t create new words/concepts to mean what they talk about.

    We could get one word for bureaucratic power, statist overeach, etc…

    Another is that there aren’t Libertarian think thanks that search/conceive for statistics that make the Libertarian point.

    Instead the Leftists are always creating new concepts, changing word meaning, even if they are only noise and representations of the old Marxism.
    Also many of statistics are designed to support the Statist point. Obviously the state makes most of statistics.

  • lucklucky

    For example the Libertarians should invent a word for critics that imply not state intervention. Maybe “freecritic” or “marketcritic” this sound probably better in German… 🙂

    When a Leftist makes a critic to something that implies 99.9% that the State should intervene, a Libertarian should have a word that means when we critic something and we don’t want state intervention about it.

  • Rob Fisher

    Laird: “By “rhetoric” I think Rob Fisher is really talking about an appeal to emotions.” Yes, that’s a good working definition, though I’m open to others. Misleading word choice has something to do with it, too.

    By the way I do enjoy it when the comments transcend the original post.

  • In the short-term? Yes. In the medium to long? No.

    The left has always been very good at rhetoric. “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher”, bankers bonuses, fat cats, talking about companies paying no tax, and really, the direction of traffic has been broadly against them for 40 years. OK, they got Blair for about a decade and pushed things back a little, but that’s already been gradually unwound.

    It’s why I can’t abide political coverage on TV or people like Guido Fawkes. It’s not about smart speeches of “gaffes”. You win in politics by what you deliver – you fix the street lights, empty the bins and execute wars.

  • bobby b

    “You win in politics by what you deliver – you fix the street lights, empty the bins and execute wars.”

    Fixing, emptying, and executing used to be the effective metrics.

    Now you win by delivering a smug self-righteous sense of superiority to your followers.

    Dialectic works best when bragging about fixing, emptying, and executing – things that can be measured.

    Rhetoric swells your followers egos, thus delivering what matters today.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Can we possibly beat them at their own game?

    Their “game” is the control of people, of ideas, of society, of values. It is a “game” that most libertarians don’t want to play let alone vanquish. If anything the best tactic is one that should just discourage those from playing, which will weaken the enemy somewhat.

  • John B

    Being good at rhetoric depends on how willing you are to tell lies and how good you are at it.

    In evidence: any politician who has arrived in Government.

    Libertarians, being empiricists, seeing the World as it is want to share truth, not lies… therefore they are bad lairs and at a natural disadvantage.

  • Paul Marks

    Well yes – for example looking around at the mess of Detroit (the Progressive “model city” plan proclaimed in the early 1960s) the natural assumption is to come to the conclusion that statism has failed.

    Ditto if one compared North and South Korea or the old West and East Germany.

    However, the left always have a reply – so just being empirical “look-look” will not do.

    One actually has to work out WHY (rationally NOT empirically) certain principles work and certain do not. Just “it works” (Pragmatism – William James and John Dewey) will not do on its own.

    And one must be able to explain why – which means using language well (using the gift of rhetoric). Just explaining ONCE and then finding one’s neck turning red and going into the “HULK SMASH!” stage (like ME too often – for I have got short tempered as I have got old) will not do.

    Although standing on the border of, say, South Dakota and Minnesota and saying “look which way to you think that people and business enterprises are migrating?” might be satisfying.

    If a bit cold this time of year.

  • Paul Marks

    Besides leftists can, seem to be, “empirical” also.

    For example Fred Engels – going round early 19th century British cities and saying “look at the terrible poverty – capitalism has failed”.

    Saying “this is due to state intervention” will not really do.

    Taxation was not that high in early 19th century Britain – and it was even lower in early 19th century America (no great National Debt and no tithes). Yet it was easy to find terrible grinding poverty.

    Now one can do a Kevin Carson tap dance and (falsely) say that “capitalism is not the real free market – state intervention caused the industrial revolution”, or one can say (correctly) that grinding poverty is the natural condition of humanity and it takes generations of economic development to get most people out of it.

    Although, yes, studying the lives of great industrialists shows that whilst (yes) state intervention did effect their lives (for good as well as ill) the main reason for their success was their own creativity and hard work.

    Someone who studies the life of (say) Joshua Wedgewood of the 18th century, or Jon Huntsman (senior) in modern times, and REMAINS an “anti capitalist” is, to use technical scientific language, a bit of a shit really.

  • Matt Moore

    Worstall and Don Boudreaux are the leading practitioners of libertarian rhetoric currently working.

  • Cristina

    With all due respect to Samizdata (authors and visitors alike), I don’t agree with Rob Fisher’s assertion that the problem of libertarianism is some kind of “political anomia”.
    As somebody who migrated from the left, an oppositional position to my upbringing, to the right as the result of rationalism by the age of 25, I can attest that libertarianism seems like a watered-down progressivism to a curious mind. “Live and let live” and “a better world is possible” both have exactly the same rhetorical value.
    No, Mr Ed, I’m not trolling.

  • lucklucky

    No company could ever get away with millions of violent deaths, nevertheless Communism can. In essence it is the best PR campaign ever devised.

    Why is that? Maybe it is because many people seek explanation about the world, results are not the primary concern for them and there is even not need of coherence.

    I think one of the interesting areas to explore and research in a Leftist is the mind trade they make. What makes a Leftist support a Feminist group and at same time support Hamas or any other Islamic group? Their mind does not connected ideas? mild schizophrenia? a radical utilitarian mind that just picks what can be exploited for the moment ? a leftist doesn’t really care for women, it is just a tool to exploit and power is the ultimate desire? a very focused mind that can just process 1 or 2 ideas, factors and automatically rejects all others?

  • bobby b

    “If a bit cold this time of year.”

    OT, but just crossed that border an hour ago. In South Dakota with friends to do some coyote hunting.

    By 5:00pm, it’s going to be -20F.

    Windy, too, so if you forget to blink, you freeze your eyeballs.

  • In re: oxymorons, when one says that “military intelligence” is oxymoronic, one is using a fair amount of irony. However, when one does the same for “social sciences”, there is no irony whatsoever.

    My favorite description is that of Psychology: “Guesswork masquerading as science.” But Sociology and Social Anthropology can equally be thus described,

  • PapayaSF

    I have noticed that libertarians are often bad at persuasion. They often think that principles are all that matter, when most people care about results. Simply saying: “But that’s the state using tax money and power over people!” gets the response: “So what?” Libertarians need concrete examples and better persuasive skills.

    Anyone interested in political persuasion should be reading Scott Adams’ blog. He’s been talking about Trump as a “master persuader” who he predicts is going to win the Presidency with 65%(!) of the popular vote. And the comments are always interesting. Personally, 65% seems hugely high, but at this point I think Trump will win. Libertarians should just prepare for that eventuality, and prepare some liberty-oriented solutions that can be sold to President Trump and a GOP Congress.

  • If I may offer a simple observation, as a knuckle-dragging, simple-minded non-libertarian conservative: the problem that libertarians have when it comes to political debate is that they tend to have 140+ IQs, which means that the universal truths of libertarian principles are so blindingly obvious to them that they have a problem doing a simple sales job of their philosophy to others. In that, libertarians have a problem that socialists do not — those reptiles simply quote teh Gospel According To Marx / Lenin / Trotsky / Engles, and that’s that.

    Nor do libertarians have the comfort of history (as we conservatives do), because there’s no historical foundation for libertarian principles’ success in any society in the past. (Granted, socialists have the opposite problem in that socialism has failed miserably, no matter how nobly or brutally it has been put into practice, because socialists either ignore history or try to change it.) History, however, is replete with examples where conservative societies have worked — not wonderfully, but to paraphrase Churchill, better than all the alternatives. (And before anyone starts trying to rebut this statement, let me remind everyone that the Enlightenment was not based on a libertarian philosophy, even though it shares several tenets.)

    But to wrench myself back on track: it’s often a problem when extremely intelligent people (e.g. the writers and readers of this blog) have to explain the blindingly-obvious to the impenetrably-dense. Mais c’est la vie.

  • By the way, Mr. Fisher: Foyles is my favorite bookshop in the entire world. No other bookshop comes even close, and I envy you your proximity.

  • James Waterton

    Orwell wrote about this in Politics and the English Language:

    Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
    “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

    The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

  • Jake Haye

    Instead the Leftists are always creating new concepts, changing word meaning, even if they are only noise and representations of the old Marxism.
    lucklucky January 15, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    Agreed. Particularly galling is a recent tendency for some leftists to use the term “classical liberal” as a means of distinguishing themselves from the SJW fruitcakes.

  • Maximo Macaroni

    Islam shares with progressive collectivists love for the power of rhetorical lies. When a socialist encounters Muslim radicals (but I repeat myself) weaving their spells, he cannot help but smile knowingly and, perhaps, wink.

  • lucklucky

    Very good James Waterton.

  • I have always had a bit of a down on rhetoric, at least as it is commonly practised. Thus Rob Fisher’s posting is most welcome. I also found rxc’s comment of Friday to be largely in accordance with my own view.

    The analysis of the Ancients, much loved by self-identifying intellectual elites, should not be totally discarded: it has validity though it is over-simplistic. This period (IMHO) runs roughly from the Sophists until the contributions and changed (more scientific) emphasis of Francis Bacon. Rhetoric joined with logic and grammar forms the Trivium, with even higher studies including the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)

    Care is needed however, because these analysis methods did not (and that of their up-to-date followers do not) work properly with many of the complexities of the modern world. For example, the differences between two political approaches are quite likely to be that (at least) two different groups of people are likely to be differently advantaged or disadvantaged by which way the decision goes. The best decision (the Baysian approach) needs to consider the total number of people affected in each way, and the extent of the different advantage or disadvantage for the two groups (and very likely of all different subgroups). One also needs to consider other potential solutions than perhaps the over-simplistic two that are in public contention, seeking always to find the composite solution that maximises the common good (whatever that might mean, especially over time).

    Examples are useful, and one can do much worse than Julian Baggini’s set of Bad Moves on the website of Butterlies and Wheels, such as on the Straw Man Fallacy.

    Decision Theory is the modern field that is, in my opinion, the one by which we currently should be most greatly influenced. I work within this field regularly, in trying to get computers to determine what they (the computers) should do across the range of problems that any one piece of computer software (perhaps labelled as Artificial Intelligence (AI) software) should solve. Of course, and most usefully, the only emotions that computer software have are those that are programmed into them – thus making such ’emotions’ much more explicit than are found in all individual homo sapiens. [Aside: as the term AI is itself liable to raise emotions (if not hackles), I prefer to use the term Machine Learning (ML).]

    The substance of Decision Theory come down to 3 inputs: (i) the basic beliefs (sometimes, especially in and for mathematics, called axioms); (ii) the legitimate logical steps (which are mainly deductive); (iii) the evidence (from the real world) to supplement incomplete answers from applying the deductive steps, to bridge between the basic beliefs and the problem to be resolved. One applies all appropriate deductive steps and evidence, often retaining multiple orders of application. Then one recurses: supplementing the basic beliefs (and previous deductions) with the outputs of the immediately previous set of deductive steps (or several sets thereof) and deducing further.

    Returning to Rob Fisher’s points, it strikes me (following Plato) that there is actually a rhetorical problem with the meaning of rhetoric. This is the equivocation of meaning between its use as part of the Trivium (the communicating, perhaps persuasive, part of knowing and sharing truth) and the political and more common modern meaning: where persuasiveness is used deviously to convey falsehood in place of truth.

    My above comments favouring Decision Theory have more to do with the inadequacy of the logic of the Ancients (and their modern fellow travellers) than it has to do with purposeful falsehood – unless the rhetorical falsehood arises intentionally because of the opportunity presented by the audience struggling to grasp the logical and evidential complexities of the issue.

    Best regards

  • Cristina

    I agree with you, Mr. Sedgwick.
    Rhetoric was originally intended as part of the paideia, as W. Jaeger explained. As such it was an integral part on the preparation of citizens for the government of the polis. The negative taste that Mr. Fisher detects on the word might be a reflection of this equivocation.

  • Laird

    Brilliant quote from Orwell.

  • AngryTory

    No. Power comes from the barrel of a gun. We don’t need more rhetoric. We need more guns – and like the Founding Fathers, the will to use them.

  • Rich Rostrom

    AngryTory: How many guns can you hold? Guns are no use without men to wield them. Men will not wield guns in a cause unless they are first persuaded that they should. That needs rhetoric.

    The Founding Fathers succeeded because they used rhetoric to persuade a plurality of Americans to take up guns and fight. They did it with rhetoric: Tom Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence.

    To be sure, guns are a multiplier. Zero guns means zero power. A well-armed minority can coerce a less-armed majority. But there’s a cap on the effect. A hundred armed libertarians could not assert power in the United States.