Posted: July 10, 2014
A review of Rhetoric and American Statesmanship, Edited by Jeffrey Wallin and Glen Thurow
he editors and authors of Rhetoric and American Statesmanship, a collection of essays by participants at a 1980 conference at the University of Dallas, are to be praised for having crossed a "research frontier" in political science. As far as I know, there is no other collection of essays available with its theoretical orientation. Their innovation is simply the attempt to evaluate rhetoric seriously or "scientifically," not just as a useful means for achieving political ends but also in terms of the reasonableness of those ends.
In his introduction, Glen Thurow rightly notes that such an enterprise is the appropriate antidote to the currently pervasive cynicism about political speech. Political scientists and journalists, among others, understand such speech solely as a weapon brandished in defense of some political, social, or economic agenda which is ultimately indefensible before the tribunal of reason. The winner of the war of words is simply the one who deploys his rhetoric most cunningly. This cynicism, as has been often noted, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If intellectuals do not take political arguments seriously as attempts to articulate the truth, how can politicians be expected to do so?
Ultimately, what lies behind the cynicism about rhetoric is a denial of the possibility of the statesman: the individual who apprehends the common good, desires its achievement, and persuades others to adopt his convictions through rhetorical skill. Without rhetoric in the service of such statesmanship, politics does, in fact, degenerate into the play of irrational forces. This is evident in totalitarian regimes where propaganda and terror are the instruments of rule. Their political theory denies the very possibility of genuine persuasion through reasonable speech.
In discussing America's "erosion within," Thurow argues that the reigning orthodoxy among American intellectuals may not fundamentally disagree with Communist ideology in this respect. He calls attention, in particular, to their absolutely indiscriminate use of the word "communication." In this light, the enterprise attempted in this book is of the greatest political importance. Articulating the possibility of rhetoric demands nothing less than reestablishing in the political world the distinction between persuasion or "free speech" and propaganda.
Such attempts cut deeply against the grain of modern thought. Not only Harold Lasswell but Max Weber and Thomas Hobbes deny the validity of this distinction. One cannot help but remember Harry Neumann's well-defended assertion in the October 1983 issue of this Review that "the soul of modernity's atheism" (and hence of modernity itself) is the attempt at "a complete eradication of any sense of good and bad, just and unjust."
Any analysis of the possibilities for rhetoric and statesmanship today must take into account the power of modern thought. The dynamic of political reform based on endless self-criticism may have created a world in which genuine rhetoric can have little practical effect. Consider a huge and complex democracy, largely dependent upon science and technology, in which most citizens are neither liberally educated nor accept the authority of tradition. These citizens receive the bulk of their political "communications" not from personal contact with friends, party leaders, or elected officials or from the written word, but from the electronic media. Even the press acknowledges the electronic media's powerful charm by paying them the compliment of imitation. Given such circumstances, by which medium can the statesman hope to articulate his understanding of the common good for the great mass of democratic citizens? How can he hope to present persuasive arguments when the most effective means of communication available appears to be a thirty-second segment on the evening news?
Harvey Mansfield, Jr. raises such questions in his essay when he considers the hostility of the media to reasonable political discourse or, more precisely, to reason and politics. For Mansfield, "the media merely actualize a principle and culminate a trend" (pp. 64-65). That principle is the peculiarly modern creation of a universal and homogeneous state populated by millions of equal, isolated, thoughtless, and despondent individuals. The media attempt to dismiss any opposition to this project as "benighted and reactionary" through appeals to the universal sentiments of indignation, fear, and compassion. These feelings, once inflamed, are then mobilized against the existence of human suffering, which is presented as wholly undeserved, wholly a product of human selfishness, and wholly eradicable by human effort.
The Media versus Rhetoric
The media serve the materialistic idealism of the modern intellectual through their opposition to all human distinctions, particularly the cherished belief in the autonomy of virtue, thought, and political life. The media cannot do justice to the particularity or individuality of the members of their audience. Their goal must be the destruction of humanity itself, at which point human suffering will really disappear. Perhaps it is the modern thinker's hostility toward his own humanity, his own limitations, that causes him to will his own self-destruction. In any case, the "effectual truth" of the media's vulgarization of his thought is the trivialization of all things human.
Mansfield's rhetoric is so persuasive that he almost has us believing that the end of history is at hand and that there is nothing to be done about it. But he leaves partisans of humanity grounds for hope: "Whether in fact intellectuals rule the world they interpret may well be doubted. Politics has its own imperatives that do not respond to direction from above" (p. 70). He does not reveal, however, how this insight might provide rhetorical possibilities for today's statesman.
There remains the pressing need to articulate these rhetorical possibilities. Despite the obstacles to communicating thoughtfully with citizens through the media, it is generally assumed today that effective rhetoric is the mark of good political leaders. The president's authority to govern, for example, is thought to come immediately from the people. By appealing directly to the populace for support of his policies, and the broad political vision which guides them, the president wields considerable power in compelling Congress to adopt them.
Jeffrey Tulis's essay questions the wisdom of such an arrangement in light of an older view of the presidency; namely, that found in the Federalist and generally accepted throughout the nineteenth century. Distrusting the demagogic potential of popular rhetoric, its exponents believed that the president should deal with legislators directly rather than coerce Congress through the mobilization of public opinion. Furthermore, they believed that rhetoric must be consistent with one's own constitutional tradition rather than some bold and innovative departure from it.
Tulis discusses several problems with the view of the presidency predominant in our own century; however, one significant problem suggested in Mansfield's essay is not sufficiently considered here. The president who relies excessively on rhetoric often becomes vulnerable to the media's anti-political idealism. More precisely, the shift of presidential authority from the Constitution to the public forum leads presidents to make extravagant promises. The media can then subject an administration to incessant criticism for its repeated failures. It seems that the more recent presidents have attempted to rule through popular rhetoric the more unpopular they have become. The rhetorical president has not been a successful demagogue.
The growth in the quantity and decrease in both the quality and effectiveness of presidential rhetoric can be traced, in part, to such factors as the emergence of the electronic media and the breakdown of parties. The perception of its legitimacy among intellectuals, at least, is rooted primarily in the success of Woodrow Wilson's rhetoric in defense of the rhetorical presidency. Tulis does not reject Wilson's position entirely.
Wilson's criticism of the Founders contains an important "aristocratic insight." In their extreme distrust of popular rhetoric, they may have unnecessarily denigrated the places of democratic citizenship and statesmanship in the American regime. The importance of presidential rhetoric as a means of civic education, even in a liberal democracy, cannot be overlooked. Although Wilson may have overstated the case, it is certainly a major role of the president to provide elevating moral leadership appropriate to the circumstances that the nation encounters.
Tulis concludes that an institutional means is needed to encourage rhetoric when it is beneficial and to discourage it when it is harmful. He searches for a mean between the approaches to presidential rhetoric advocated by the authors of the Federalist on the one hand, and by Wilson on the other. The search cannot be a completely successful one, Tulis concedes, because it is impossible to institutionalize the production of statesmen, on whom the production of appropriate rhetoric depends. Even with this observation in mind, Tulis's call for institutional reform is disappointing for its vagueness.
Mansfield's and Tulis's analyses of the contemporary political context are incomplete in that they fail to identify the sort of rhetoric appropriate to this context. Interestingly, the attempts by both President Reagan and his Democratic opponents to claim the political patrimony of Franklin D. Roosevelt might suggest that F.D.R. exemplifies the type of statesmanship possible in the post-Wilsonian, media-dominated era. John Zvesper's essay considers whether Roosevelt's rhetoric, in fact, deserves to be a model for contemporary democratic statesmen. His evaluation of the possibility is well-balanced, subtle, and ultimately favorable.
A key weakness of Roosevelt's rhetoric is its seeming hostility to entrepreneurial daring. The strong desire to be free from the fearful anxieties of individualism is natural enough, but finally enervating. This yearning prepares one to accept a "post-industrial" dependence on "enlightened administration" for one's own comfortable self-preservation. But Roosevelt's moderate promotion of "childish dependence on the paternalistic state" might be defended, Zvesper continues, as "a means of forestalling much more revolutionary and illiberal demands."
It might also be defended in view of the New Deal's limited objective of "economic rather than spiritual salvation." Roosevelt, for the most part, was too much of a political realist to take very seriously the apolitical, materialist idealism of the modern intellectual. His rhetoric was relatively free of messianic enthusiasm for humanity's boundless self-perfectibility. Human well-being, for Roosevelt, "was not constant creativity but the more mundane concerns of material security. . . ." Consequently, "it is possible to condemn his political vision for being not too lively and inspiring but too materialistic and deadening" (p. 91).
Much to Roosevelt's credit, his agenda rightly left much of the passion connected with assertions of human excellence in the private realm. The movement of the post-industrial era is toward ever-increasing leisure time, the purpose of which Roosevelt never presumed to dictate. He is, in this respect, a genuine liberal or "constitutionalist." The problems of post-industrial "alienation" and enervation are symptomatic, not of liberalism's failure but of its success.
Zvesper notes, however, that Roosevelt sometimes transgressed the limitations he placed on his vision by exaggerating unreasonably the seriousness of the Depression crisis. He also criticizes Roosevelt for arousing, on occasion, a general and unlimited "class hatred" instead of manageable anger at the particular injustices of "punishable individuals." Furthermore, Roosevelt was wrong to impose the simplistic ideological distinction between liberalism and conservatism on American party politics. Such a distinction suggests a false opposition between a virtuous and public-spirited populace on the one hand, and a vicious and self-serving plutocracy on the other. Those intellectuals who are the articulate voices of the people are, by their moral superiority or compassion, fit to rule over the vested interests which would otherwise govern the nation through greed. This aspect of Roosevelt's rhetoric places the legitimate demands of the people for safety, comfort, and leisure at the mercy of the intellectuals' demagoguery.
For Zvesper, the most praiseworthy element of Roosevelt's rhetoric is his interpretation of the New Deal for relatively forgotten Americans as an attempt to help create a democratic community of "equal dignity" (p. 96). Social legislation represents "an urge of humanity," "a growing sense of human decency." Roosevelt curbs the excesses of competitive individualism by emphasizing the common humanity of all Americans. This recognition imposes "the duty of self-restraint," moderates class antagonism, and becomes the basis of a national campaign against human suffering.
Roosevelt, I might add, sometimes understood the quite visible suffering of the Depression as the great teacher of self-restraint, and of social or political morality. (See his "Address to Young Democratic Clubs of America," August 24, 1935.) This suffering was cruel because it was so obviously undeserved. Those who fell victim to it were angered at its injustice; those who escaped feared that a similar fate lay in store for themselves. Both of these feelings, combined with compassion at the sight of human suffering, were sufficient incentives to mobilize the whole American people behind "cooperative efforts of government" to alleviate it. No account of Roosevelt's rhetoric is complete without an analysis of the necessity of and, as Mansfield reveals, the dangers of his efforts to use these universal feelings to moderate the excesses of individualism.
Because of the weaknesses of Roosevelt's rhetoric, which cause it to be in some respects too deadening and in others too dangerous, it is reasonable to search for alternative, or at least supplementary, examples of "post-Wilsonian" rhetoric. Thomas Silver directs our attention to the speeches of Calvin Coolidge. He convincingly refutes the conventional view that Coolidge was a thoughtless, heartless, and humorless defender of the unbridled capitalist materialism of the Twenties. Coolidge's defense of the Declaration of Independence as "the ark for the eternal and noble principles of the American people" (p. 117) is an impressive and thoughtful reconstruction of the political spirit of the Founding. Still, it is disconcerting to ponder that almost no one before Silver had appreciated Coolidge's rhetorical achievements. No doubt the contemporary liberal and conservative biases against the adequacy of the Declaration as a vessel of political principle have much to do with Coolidge's poor reputation. Yet part of the evaluation of rhetoric must be in terms of its effectiveness in given circumstances. One cannot say that Coolidge was the "moral trumpet" for the Twenties that Roosevelt was for the Thirties. Hence, can we really call Coolidge a statesman of Roosevelt's quality?
This question of rhetorical effectiveness is of central importance to Silver. His quarrel is with those who would deny, as do most contemporary intellectuals, that the version of liberal modernity contained in the American Founding is rhetorically defensible today. For Silver, the task of the statesman is to rehabilitate Locke's "exoteric teaching," a doctrine of natural law understood in opposition to all "arbitrary or artificial rule." He should foster public-spirited attachment to the original moral and political intention of liberalism, which is perfectly reflected in the Declaration of Independence, properly understood.
Liberalism, of course, asserts the limited nature of the political: "The public sphere . . . is not self-contained. It is open to the divine" (p. 121). According to Locke's "esoteric" or epistemological teaching, however, human beings do not have access to knowledge of the divine. Consequently, freedom from the political is in truth nothing more than freedom for the joyless quest for joy. Is not the central difficulty with the defense of liberalism today the almost universal recognition among intellectuals that Lockean epistemology does not support the Declaration's natural theology?
Fortunately, however, the Declaration's God is not limited to Lockean-Jeffersonian or even, as Silver seems to suggest, Aristotelian metaphysics. He also is Biblical and Christian. Does not the American assertion of the goodness of liberty for all human beings presuppose the Christian experience of a transpolitical personal God who is accessible to and cares for every man and woman?
It seems to me that Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," which, as Eva Brann demonstrates in her essay, ought to be considered in some respects the model of American rhetoric, cannot be understood without acknowledging that it somehow presupposes the Christian experience of personal freedom. I cannot here do justice to the extraordinary care and depth of Brann's analysis of Madison's rhetoric. I can only consider the significance of some of her conclusions concerning the substance of this rhetoric.
According to Madison, religious freedom is an inalienable right "because of an ineradicable feature of human nature-its freedom" (p. 18). This freedom is freedom from political dominion, for one's free and personal acceptance of one's duties as a creature to one's Creator. It is freedom to search for the truth about God through reason and conscience. Madison teaches the compatibility between political enlightenment and religious truth. His God supports liberty because He is wholly transpolitical. Thus, Madison opposes every effort to chain religion to the purposes of any particular regime.
Religious truth, although transpolitical, is not idiosyncratic. The same truth is accessible to all human beings, and it results in the social phenomenon of common religious observance which also must be free from political control. The existence and the desirability of sectarian variety is evidence that human reason is fallible, rather than that religious truth is entirely beyond its reach.
If Madison's understanding of freedom is, most of all, freedom from political dominion for the fulfillment of religious duties to a personal, transpolitical God, and this freedom exists for all human beings, I cannot see how the "metaphysical" foundation of this understanding of freedom can be anything but rooted in the Biblical-Christian experience. Madison is surely neither simply a Lockean nor a Lockean-Aristotelian. As Brann notes, Madison's defense of religious freedom, as applied to the First Amendment, is far more vigorous than those concerned exclusively with the political effects of the decay of morality or "civil religion." Further, Madison would doubtless have opposed the contemporary dogma of public education that religious freedom consists essentially in the escape from, rather than the search for, transpolitical religious truth. It is not altogether clear how Madison's rhetoric might be recast by a statesman today. Yet it is certain that contemporary defenders of the founding of American liberalism are obliged to take sufficient stock of its Biblical-Christian dimension.
Each essay in this collection is worthy of extended discussion. The remaining three, however, can be noted here only in brief. Walter Berns, in his essay on judicial rhetoric, argues that judges as well have become almost totally dependent upon the current intellectual climate. They regard "the salutary and altogether reasonable idea that the Constitution embodies the true principles of republican government" (pp. 52-53) as a vulgar and outmoded prejudice. Rather than jealously guarding their independence of thought, they ride the crests of intellectual fashion. The resulting distortions of the Constitutional texts inevitably erode the affection and respect of the American people for the very idea of Constitutional government.
Forrest McDonald's essay, although occasionally lacking in focus and clarity, brings a wealth of learning and political sense to bear in a defense of the integrity of Hamilton's rhetoric. Larry Arnn's essay on two of Churchill's early works, the essay "The Scaffolding of Rhetoric" and the novel Savrola, offers in turn a fascinating and instructive account of the limits and possibilities of rhetorical statesmanship. Although it seems out of place in this book, Arnn's essay is one of its best.
Rhetoric and American Statesmanship is indeed a first-rate collection of essays on an important subject. Its publication should be regarded as an event of real significance for American political science. American political education, particularly in our colleges and law schools, requires the serious study of rhetoric. The political and intellectual life of the country has suffered too long under the tutelage of teachers who themselves were taught that rhetoric, properly speaking, does not even exist.