The United States is in the midst of a presidential election. Like all such elections, it involves two, sometimes three, major candidates, each of whom tries to persuade the voters to vote for him or her. Some candidates do this well and others don’t. But they could all do it better if they knew Aristotle’s principles of rhetoric.
Classical rhetoric is about persuading people. In this sense, an election is a rhetorical situation.
In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle devised a whole lexicon of persuasive principles. He spoke of the three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. These are the three ways in which we are persuaded.
The first way we are persuaded by a speaker (or candidate) is by his character, his ethos. We believe him because he convinces us that he is good, trustworthy, or credible in some way. This appeals to our wills. We believe in the man.
The second way we are persuaded is when we accept the rational appeal of the speaker, his logos. His arguments are rational and his evidence convincing. This is an appeal to our intellects. We believe his logic.
The third way we are persuaded is when we desire to believe the speaker. We are drawn by his pathos. He excites our passions. We believe in him because we want to believe in him. This is an appeal to our hearts, to our emotions.
One of the biggest mistakes in politics is to assume that mere arguments, mere evidence, mere information will cause voters to vote a certain way. If all that each voter possessed was an intellect, this might be true. But the human soul is not this simple. We are equipped, not only with an intellect, but with a will and a heart.
This is something that modern advertisers know well. In the old days, before advertisers learned about human psychology, television and magazine ads featured explicitly rational appeals to evidence that their products were better. They thought we would buy something if we were convinced that four out of five experts recommended it. And because people do not respond best to rational appeals, one of the most common mistakes made in politics is to stress facts, statistics, and abstract argumentation and ignore personal character and emotion—to emphasize logos over ethos and pathos.
This was evident in the 2012 presidential election. While Mitt Romney emphasized abstract economic issues (complete with facts and statistics), Barack Obama appeared at halftime during the NCAA national championship basketball game talking about how he liked to play hoops with his staff. Romney, a wealthy businessman who relaxed by sailing a yacht, was all logos, while Obama, who came off as a normal, likable person, emphasized ethos and pathos. Obama won.
But in the end, even ethos, the personal character of the person, is no match for pathos.
Advertisers still hire famous people to hock their products. The association in the mind of a potential buyer of a celebrity endorsement can be taken to the bank, which is why Nike hired Michael Jordan, H&M struck a deal with David Beckham, and Chanel #5 hired actress Nicole Kidman. It all had to do with what these people could do well (play basketball for Jordan, play soccer for Beckham, and act for Kidman). This is ethos-based advertising.
Advertising can also be helped by the celebrity’s moral character, which is why a scandal can end a sponsorship deal faster than Michael Jordan can dunk a basketball.
But advertising is moving more and more toward implicit messages that show potential customers how they will appear or what they will be like or how they will feel if they buy that new dress or drive that new car. Many of these commercials contain no explicit rationale or even appeal to buy, but simply show a very happy—or beautiful or stylish—person (who, it is implied, could be you) using the product.
When Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, he emphasized his trustworthiness and his war record—all ethos-based appeals. Bill Clinton countered by feeling the voters’ pain. Political cartoonist Pat Oliphant portrayed the tenor of the race by showing a scene at a restaurant in which Bob Dole was shown talking about what “Bob Dole would do,” while the pathos-driven Clinton was shown seated at a small table looking into the eyes of a woman (representing the voters), while two musicians, one with a violin and the other with a guitar, played romantic music.
Bob Dole lost.
One of the reasons for Ronald Reagan’s almost universal appeal among both conservatives and liberals is that he emphasized all three persuasive modes. He gave rational reasons for his policy ideas (logos), spending years arguing for his positions on daily radio broadcasts and in frequent speeches. He came off as likable and trustworthy (ethos), being able to put even his political enemies (like the then Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill) at ease with his friendly and affable manner. But he also had an uncanny ability to appeal to the hearts of his listeners, whether it was through jokes (by one account he had memorized over a thousand of them), or through simple stories he told about people he had met or heard about. He wasn’t called the Great Communicator for nothing.
This year’s election has shown once again the importance of Aristotle’s principles of persuasion, as two unlikely candidates, the celebrity businessman Donald Trump and the liberal populist Bernie Sanders, conducted effective insurgency campaigns in their respective parties. The Republican Trump did this through a gut-level appeal to voter anger and disaffection, and the Democratic Sanders through an appeal to the unfairness of the economic system.
None of these candidates—neither the ones running this year, nor those from past elections—had any conception of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. But they would undoubtedly be more effective if they did.
Of course, that could be good or bad, depending on where you stand.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2016 edition.