On politics and the ‘common’

The Political Quarterly announced the winner of The Bernard Crick prize for the best piece 2014 a couple of weeks ago. It was awarded to Alan Finlayson’s article Proving, pleasing and persuading? Rhetoric in contemporary British Politics (free to read at the moment). Finlayson contrasts political rhetoric at the start of the twentieth century with contemporary rhetoric. The thrust of his argument is that contemporary politics offers an inhospitable environment for sophisticated rhetorical strategies.

There are several reasons for this. Rhetoric is about appreciating where audiences start from in their understanding of the world and tailoring your arguments so as to take them from where they currently are to where you’d like them to be. And that is the heart of the problem.

A characteristic of contemporary politics is that most professional politicians develop within the world of think tanks, special advisors and the like. They may therefore be adept at persuasion within a particular elite political community, but they lack the rhetorical flexibility to reach out to a broader range of citizens. This leads to the common complaint that politicians don’t talk like normal people.

A second characteristic is that much political speech-making is technologically mediated. It is not designed to persuade those in the room: politicians most typically spend their time actually speaking to hand-picked audiences of the faithful. Rather, speeches are designed to capture headlines and soundbites that will resonate with an unidentified and undifferentiated audience. It is therefore difficult to craft arguments that start from where the audience is. You end up with quite generic claims or statements that have been through a focus group to see what might play well with a cross-section of society.

But the most profound problem Finlayson identifies is that the very notion of the ‘common’ has been thrown in to question:

The greatest difference between contemporary British political culture and the presuppositions of a rhetorical polity is the absence from the former of a strong sense of the ‘common’— of a people that could and should meaningfully and purposefully govern and judge itself. The cause of this is not simply sociological (rising individualism or complex multiculturalism). It is the outcome of an intellectual and principled objection, on the part of our political elite, on ethical as well as empirical grounds, to a politics based on the common good.

The political theory of neoliberalism seeks to show that there is no common good or common opinion to which political decisions can be referred, and that to think of society in this way is a mistake. We should think of social life as a continuous bargaining between individual interests and of the task of government as ensuring that such bargaining takes place as effectively and as efficiently as possible … Any attempt to appeal via a common opinion or common good is in fact an illegitimate and immoral imposition onto individuals of values and preferences that they have not chosen for themselves. For such a political philosophy, debate and persuasion are bad things that disrupt market processes.

Without this sense of the common we lack the foundations for a democracy based upon deliberation and for coming together to shape a shared understanding of our aspiration and destination.

For Finlayson this state of affairs is not inevitable. The fragmentation of the common is reversible. Reinvigoration of a self-consciously rhetorical tradition of political communication is a crucial ingredient. Yet, reforging a shared sense of the common interest is a fearsome challenge.

As it happens, I finished reading Finlayson’s PQ article not long after watching President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Pastor Clementa Pinckney and the other victims of the Charleston shooting. It is a genuinely moving piece of oratory. The fact Obama sings Amazing Grace near the end of the speech drew a lot of comment. But I’m not sure that is its principal contribution. He’s not even that good a singer. The speech is notable for broadening the subject matter out from the celebration of the lives of the victims to touch on social division and racial oppression, the symbolism of the confederate flag, and the politics and policy of gun control. The full complexity and sensitivity of these issues are not entirely accessible to those of us not steeped in the politics, culture and history. But even from a distance of thousands of miles the significance of President Obama’s intervention is evident.

The speech repays study as a piece of rhetoric, as well as for its content. It contains some fine phrases – evocative phrases. It makes effective use of a wide range of rhetorical devices to create rhythm and resonance. The way it builds out from the individuals being eulogised to draw in a range of profound social issues, and to do so in a way that is overlain with the recurrent theme of God’s grace, is a beautiful piece of rhetorical craft. The way in which Obama handles the pacing and dynamics of the material, both swaying and responding to the audience, is masterful. The calls to action are urgent and – no doubt intended to be – compelling.

Yet the eulogy is perhaps unusual when it comes to political speech-making. It presents Obama with an opportunity to speak to a huge live audience. It is an audience he is clearly able to relate to at a deep and genuine level. The ‘common’ for this group is never in question. But what Obama is also trying to do is to persuade those watching elsewhere that this ‘common’ is meaningful for them also. He is arguing that the Charleston tragedy opens up the possibility of tackling issues that have lain unaddressed for decades, and that everyone should see the wisdom in tackling them at last. In that respect, the most striking rhetorical flourish is perhaps in the conclusion to the speech, where President Obama repurposes the name United States of America, with the emphasis upon “United” to signify the need to make a concerted effort to transcend racial divisions.

If you haven’t watched it, then it’s well worth it. Political rhetoric that stands up well against the best there’s been.

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