Analysis of Political Rhetoric

I mentioned briefly in my article The Purpose of Writing that people should become familiar with the rhetoric used by politicians and news sources as a defense mechanism. The logic was that if people were able to clearly identify the ways in in which speakers try to sway them, the people would be more critical instead of passive about what they are told. The first way we can analyze this, and probably the easiest way, is to look at your average politician.

For this I’ll take a speech Hillary Clinton made about economic change. I’m only going to do the first ten minutes since the entire thing is nearly an hour, so to follow along you can either watch the first ten minutes and then read the analysis or you can follow along by the time markers I provide.

So following the basic structure of a speech, the first few minutes briefly touch on a couple issues just to give the idea of what the speech is about. Clinton mentions going to school without drowning and debt, ways to favor the middle class, and goes as far to mention trickle down economics, but that’s it.

Starting at 3:26 in the video Clinton says, “I believe we have to build a growth and fairness economy. You can’t have one without the other. We can’t create new jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness.” At this point one begins to suspect that she’ll actually bring up some sort of issue. It’s odd how in a speech it seems as if she is saying something of importance, but in writing it’s clear how mundane her words are. I believe the easiest way to break through any uncertainty of a politician is to, after every statement they make, simply ask ‘how?’ Clinton says she wants a fair economy with new jobs and new businesses, but how? This is the act of bringing up an issue without proposing any sort of solution.

At 3:51 in the video it is stated “Because while America is standing again, we are not yet running the way we should.” This has been used by every single politician. It is that idea of the American dream, that idea that we used to be great but now we aren’t. Or here it can be broken down to “Things could always be better.” Well of course because the people will never be happy with the government simply because how diverse the opinions can be. No matter what your politics are you can always agree that things could be better. Instead this is used as a transition phrase leading into the next issue.

This leads to 4:10 in the video when Clinton begins to talk about family wages. This section can be simplified to “Things cost too much and people don’t have enough money.” It really does help to simplify every statement to it’s core meaning. Then at 4:30 she gives a real world example of a single mom with three kids, a job, and school. What’s interesting is she says that she talked to this person, and just on our good faith and her authority we assume that this actually happened. That event could very well have been fabricated to make a point, but either way it doesn’t matter. The point is she is using an example that is more likely to connect with people. These emotional stories of people in the struggle are enough to arouse people’s sentiment towards action. Once the audience is heartbroken and guilty enough to listen, it is the speaker’s job to tell them what to do about it. That’s exactly what Clinton does at 4:45, she softened them up with the story and then she states “But if she got a raise, everything wouldn’t be quite so hard.” Which makes her purpose more effective.

At 5:38 she says “Families that work hard and do their part deserve to get ahead and stay ahead. The defining economic challenge of our time is clear: we must raise incomes for hard-working Americans so they can afford a middle class life.” Again this statement goes back to the American dream of ‘if you work hard you’ll be successful,’ which is largely untrue. There is a contradiction in the first sentence however. If the hardworking deserve to stay ahead does that mean that the super wealthy deserve to stay where they are because they worked hard to get there? She already briefly mentioned income equality but how does that make sense at all? The second sentence is just pampered to the American people. She aims it towards the ‘hard working Americans’ but what is a hard working american? Isn’t that everybody with a job? Because no functioning person is going to say “Well yeah the hard-working Americans deserve a raise, but I’m not a hard-working American.” Because everybody is going to consider themselves a hard-working American. Does that mean raises for everyone? How will you make that happen? This is just the kind of thing people want to hear with no real value to it.

At about 5:59 she says “We must drive strong and steady income growth that lifts up families and lifts up our countries.” Just more glittering generalities. Income growth sounds amazing, but are we supposed to take it on good faith she can make that happen? Surely if you are so dedicated to this issue you must have some kind of plan to accomplish this. Clinton knows exactly what she wants to do, but she is apprehensive about saying it because that would cause people to disagree with her. As long as she keeps talking about issues without solutions people can agree with her.

Around 6:14 she states “And that will be my mission from the first day I’m president to the last.” This is seemingly a small statement but actually has some interesting motives. Clinton’s word choice is precise, she doesn’t say “If I am president,” she means “When I am president,” as if it is an inevitability.

Starting around 6:30 she talks about her background with her father providing a middle class life. This is supposed to connect with people by letting them know that she went through the same thing everyone else did. As if saying that she’s one of them. It also puts the idea out there that she really will fight for the middle class because she used to be one.

At 6:52 “And I will as your president, take on this challenge against the backdrop of major changes in our economy and the global economy, that didn’t start with the recession and won’t end with the recovery.” That’s a lot to take on for just a single president. It’s interesting she doesn’t say what changes those are, and yet she’ll fight for them anyway. We could ask how, but she can’t possibly know how because she doesn’t say what changes there are. And there’s just the phrase “that didn’t start with the recession and won’t end with the recovery” which almost suggests the system as flawed as a wholeHow is she supposed to take on these enormous changes, when she doesn’t know what they are, and the system is flawed from the beginning? Not only is it a monumental promise, but it’s an empty promise. It’s a complete contradiction.

Clinton says at 8:34, “The choices we make as a nation matter, and these choices we make in the years ahead will set the stage for what the American life, in the middle class, in our economy, will be like in this century.” This is another statement that really has nothing to say. It means our choices have an effect on the future. Oh really? Who would have guessed? This is a transition phrase to set the stage for her next statement.

Around 8:55 Clinton says, “As president I will work with every possible partner to turn the tide, to make these currents of change to start working for us, rather than against us.” Notice how she says neither what change that is, what partners that is, or what goals she has to make it work for us. It’s empty in the sense she isn’t saying a damn thing of value.

At 9:09 she states “Because I think at our best that’s what Americans do, we’re problem solvers not deniers. We don’t hide from change, we harness it.” This is nothing more than pampering to the American people again. Americans are very vain, we like knowing that we’re Americans. This is basically a compliment to the American people with a somewhat liberal message about using change. But again, change is an extremely vague term.

And finally at 9:59 Clinton says “We’re not going to find all the answers we need today in the play books of the past. We can’t go back to the old policies that failed us before, nor can we just replay the successes.” This has a somewhat progressive message in the sense she means we can’t just go back to the past. This is so broad of a statement though, what old policies that failed us? What successes? Do we need something that has never been done before, and if so what?

This was a little longer than I intended it to be, which is why I only did the first ten minutes of the video. You can go through the entire 45 minutes of it but Clinton is an awful speaker. The whole time the audience is left wondering who programmed her before the speech. Anyway the rest of the talk is full of the same glittering generalities and empty rhetoric, without ever saying anything.

If you do decide to watch the rest, pay attention to a few small details. For one whenever Clinton uses studies or statistics she uses them to prove that there is a problem, she never uses them to propose a solution. She begins to respond to members of the Republican party, such as Jeb Bush. This is such a common method I probably don’t have to mention it, but basically trying to defame them and point out a flaw in their campaign.

So even past all the meaninglessness of it, there’s a few important things we can take away. 1) After every statement made by a politician, ask how? and 2) Break down their statements to their core meaning. I watched the entire speech, and I don’t know Clinton’s stance on anything any better than before I watched it.

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17 thoughts on “Analysis of Political Rhetoric

  1. Good advice. I worked on Capitol Hill for a while. The key to writing a political speech is to sound like you’re saying something very definite, but actually to say either (a) nothing at all, or (b) something that can be interpreted in a dozen different ways according to the person who hears it.

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    • Yes! (b) is huge. Even individual words, especially when used without context, can have double meanings, or can be euphemisms for specific policies, like “right-to-work”, or “fair tax system”…

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  2. It makes me wonder if these presidential candidates hire someone to write their speeches or if they write it themselves. You bring up a lot of good points about saying vs actually doing it. To be honest, I kind of understand it..in some aspects. Like if you were a regular American worker and all you want is more money which a lot of people do, every presidential candidate is going to say they’re the ones that are going to stop taxes but the fact of the matter is, the politicians know they can’t lower taxes because they maybe know a little more about the economy but the average Joe might not know that so he will be angry when lowered taxes aren’t a possibility and then the vicious cycle starts again.

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  3. Very good read. Acute points brought up and discussed, easily translatable to any politician ( and really, any public “pundits”). Great to see the promotion of critical thinking, injected with a dose of healthy rhetorical skepticism.

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  4. Thanks a lot for your advice. In addition, you can observe the use of terms that are also meaningless or that confuse people or that says the opposite… and certainly, one of the things that we start being used to very long ago, it is the fact that they can say what they want and after nobody can blame them or claim to do that…

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  5. Of all the analysis of Hillary Clinton I have read, you have written it better. I understand this applies to most politicians as well. However, I do believe Bernie Sanders is sincere in what he says and means what he says.

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  6. While Clinton is your example . . . they’re all doing it! The programmed way all our politicians speak has opened the door for clowns like Trump who even he has no idea what is coming out of his mouth next. Good analysis of the problem but how do you move people away from voting Republican/Democrat ‘cause I’ve always been a Republican/Democrat?

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  7. She uses a lot of pathos. Fine if you’re rallying a sports team, or leading troops into battle. No always good if you’re trying to show why you’re way is better than another. Trump does the same thing, he inspires passion without providing real answers.

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  8. She, like many other politicians, tend to exactly what you stated and use statements that seem to mean a lot yet end up meaning nothing at the end of the day. That is why I strongly support Bernie Sanders and his clear agenda. Unfortunately, Trump supporters believe he is the most honest despite he fact he is utterly reprehensible.

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  9. The dynamics of running for elected office depend on the three situations. As an incumbent one challengers the challenger by showing the voters what has been done for them and how much more you will do for them, You show that the challenger can’t match your offer. As a challenger who challenges to incumbent, you show that you have the right stuff and that change is needed. The incumbent hasn’t done enough or has done the wrong things. Change and more of it is necessary. In the third case, you challenge the challengers. You and you alone have the right stuff, You and you alone know what the people want. You and you alone have the right plan of action to get things done. It is a game of managing expectations with promises that seem likely to be fulfilled. So what else is new? Lord Acton once said that politicians are like the Montessori System of raising children. They preach the folly the people want to hear and then on the brink of disaster attempt to pull them away from the hot stove. Nixon had a “secret plan” to get us out of Viet Nam. What was that plan? He didn’t have one. Johnson had a plan for his “Great Society”. what was that plan? Throw a lot of money at society. Even Lincoln didn’t have a plan to keep the Union together until the shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Whatever plan a presidential candidate has, he or she will have to get it through Congress and I can guarantee that unless they have an iron clad majority that plan won’t look even close to the original. If the voters actually bothered to properly evaluate every political speech they wouldn’t vote for anyone. Politics is the art of compromise and voters have no appreciation of that art nor do many politicians.

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  10. Excellent post.

    It is really just common sense……….however, as many good politicians have realised to their benefit, common sense is often one quality lacking in the average person-in-the-street.

    For people who want to go through life with their brains engaged and not in neutral, I think that it is necessary to read and comprehend articles like this, on a periodic basis, to reset our gullibility meters (aka B-S detectors). I think you will like this: http://ragingbullshit.com/acerca-de/

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