Political Rhetoric Deserves an “F”
As a public speaking professor, I give many political speakers an “F” in public speaking. A major problem is the interminable length of many political speeches. Political candidates now approach the length of sermons from the Puritan era of America. A ninety-minute political speech covering 25 different topics strains the ability of any audience. Therefore, major deduction for length and excess number of subjects covered.
As a character in Lisa Alther’s Original Sins says of a Tennessee preacher: “The pastor droned on …. Mother and I endured the eternal sermon with downcast eyes …. Our pastor sure could talk.” And so can our politicians. The grade remains a “F” unless the speakers recover the joy and power of brevity. A bit of Lincoln would be a relief after speeches that contain more than 10,000 words.
The most glaring weakness in most political speeches has to do with the lack of appropriateness. Speakers often seem void of any sense of inappropriate language. The weaponization of rhetoric, the attacking of opponents, the vulgarity and profanity, the snide and demeaning remarks, and the sexist, racist tropes fill political speeches in inappropriate ways. As long as we have politicians spouting racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, we will have a divided and angry citizenry.
Bad Political Speeches Attack Democracy
Political speeches are also filled with so many attacks against the government that no one can be surprised by the lack of faith Americans now demonstrate in democracy. There’s an old adage that “all politicians are liars,” but lying has become a rhetorical staple as politicians routinely lie and defend their lies with “alternative facts.” They engage in childish name calling and insult opponents and voters. They make crass comments about women, minorities, and immigrants. Such speeches are a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness, and nonsense.
The grade given to political speeches descends into the lower reaches of credulity when politicians make sweeping condemnations of the anchor institutions of democracy – the government, the media, the justice system, and the university system. Rhetorical scholar Patrician Robert-Miller calls this “native realism” – offering up a simple worldview of simple truths and falsehood.
A typical political speech includes assailing the lack of intelligence of the opponent. “Crazy,” “mentally unfit,” “stupid,” and “loser” dot the content of such speeches.
Bad Political Speeches Whine About Victimhood
The worst political speeches exhibit the speaker whining about being persecuted, victimized, and besieged by enemies. Here the politician rips a page right out of the evangelical preacher’s playbook. Jerry Springer, of all people, claimed we should have seen this coming:
We have raised two generations of Americans who believe that anything the government does is horrible, all politicians are corrupt . . .. Washington is evil. And then every commercial we ever see, politically, on frankly on both sides of the aisle . . . is how the other guy is a bum, the other guy should be in jail, the other guy is a pervert, whatever. Well, if you raise two generations of kids to believe that about our own government . . . you can’t then be surprised that eventually someone would run for president who is absolutely anti-government.
In other words, too many political speeches damage the core of democracy and the American spirit. This alone warrants the grade of “F.”
The Final Analysis of Bad Political Speeches
Science ………………… C
History …………………. D
English …………………. C
Political Speech………….. F
Listening to a typical political speech as a professor, my evaluation sheet includes the following comments:
- Speech shows a basic lack of respect for others.
- A lack of a sense of the appropriate and lack of decorum.
- Offensive and bigoted language. Disrespectful of women and minorities.
- Anger and outrage are plastered everywhere.
- Excess emotionalism.
- Denunciation, name-calling, lecturing, labelling, and profane language violates all speaking principles.
- False assumptions.
- Misleading cause-effect arguments.
- Misinformation and lies.
- Lack of rational reasons, evidence, and warrants for arguments.
- Grade: F
In conclusion, I can’t tell whether bad political speeches or bad sermons came first, but I am convinced that American voters deserve better speeches and sermons.