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Political Rhetoric 101

Political Rhetoric 101

Have you ever talked to someone who was just so good with words that they could talk you into pretty much anything? If yes, then we've both been played by a rhetorical mastermind before... Turns out, rhetoric is not exclusively about words; it is everywhere, it is the air we breathe, it is the clothes we choose to wear in the morning, and it is the way we greet people and how we move our hands.

Humanity has a long history of being persuaded by words... Think of the rise of autocratic leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. They were masters of oratory, enough to persuade their citizenry to entrust them. Both of these leaders made constant use of rhetorical tools in their speeches and successfully used ethos, and especially pathos, to sway the masses by making emotional appeals.

In Words Like Loaded Pistols, journalist and English scholar Sam Leith traces the origins and development of rhetoric as a practice, and defines it as "language at play, that persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects" (6). This book successfully breaks down the structure of rhetorical arguments, by identifying the three appeals that are at play in a successful persuasive argument: ethos, pathos and logos. Leith is pointing to the Aristotelian modes of persuasion, three appeals that are built into most rhetorical arguments. Ethos refers to the authority and credibility that the speaker establishes in his connection to the audience, logos refers to the use of proof and evidence in order to influence an audience by reason and lastly, perhaps the most powerful, pathos is the appeal to the audience’s emotions.

One of the most common fields we think of as employing rhetoric is politics. Politicians have entire teams at their disposal that control their every rhetorical move, each of which has a strategical purpose that aims to persuade the audience. As a matter of fact, an entire professional field has developed around this need for strategic communications: the public relations division so important for politicians as well as any business or corporation. In politics, every speech is meticulously crafted, as is clothing and color scheme. These are only a few examples of elements that contribute to successfully swaying an audience. Whether through repetition, rhythm or sentence structure, these tools can be used to emphasize a certain message or influence the sound and catchiness of a particular phrase, making it more appealing to the audience. These devices have been employed as garnish in political speeches for many centuries, ever since the time sophists started practicing as rhetorical teachers for Athenian aristocracy in Ancient Greece.

Now you may ask yourself: how do we defend ourselves from being swayed by strong rhetorical arguments? Have no fear. What follows is a simple guide that identifies the most prominent rhetorical devices of the English language, each with an example from past or contemporary politics to go with it.

And so it goes... Make ethical use of these rhetorical goodies!

1.    Conduplicatio: the use of the same word repeatedly, with other words between each repetition.

●    "There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still, because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We're ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you're in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead."  -- Richard M. Nixon (Opening Statement, First Debate with John F. Kennedy)

2.     Epanalepsis: repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning and end of a sentence.

●    "Mankind must put an end to war- or war will put an end to mankind" -John F. Kennedy (UN speech 1961)

●    "History is ours and people make history" -Salvador Allende (last speech as Chile's President, 1973)

3.     Anaphora: repetition of words at the beginning of two phrases.

●    Maybe the most famous cause of anaphora, Martin Luther King’s repetition of the words “I have a dream”:

●    Obama repeats the words "we cut taxes" at the beginning of a number of phrases in this speech:

●    A last key historical example of anaphora:


4.     Epistrophe: Repetition of words at the end of two or more phrases.

●    "For no government is better than the men who compose it, and I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best." --JFK

5.     Antithesis: Figure of speech in which an opposition or contrast of ideas is expressed by parallelism of words that are the opposites or strong contrast of each other.

●    "We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict." --Donald Trump (Victory Speech 2016)

6.     Polysyndeton: Repeated use of conjunctions.

●    "And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams." --Hillary Clinton (2016)

7.   Chiasmus: a rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order, in the same or a modified form;

●      Sarah Palin uses chiasmus in this speech by saying: "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."

8.   Polyptoton: repeating the root of a word with a different ending.

●      Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are. – JFK (Inaugural Address)

9.  Enumeratio:  Figure of amplification in which a subject is divided into constituent parts or details, and may include a listing of causes, effects, problems, solutions, conditions, and consequences; the listing or detailing of the parts of something.

●      Hillary Clinton uses enumeratio in her remarks at the UN for the 4th World Conference for Women’s Rights:  

●      Minute 12.00 enumeratio : amplifies and emphasizes the significance of the issues she is addressing

■      It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls.

■      It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution for human greed -- and the kinds of reasons that are used to justify this practice should no longer be tolerated.

■      It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small.

         10. Symploce: figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used successively at the beginning of two or more clauses or sentences and another word or phrase with a similar wording is used successively at the end of them. It is the combination of anaphora and epistrophe.

●      "Much of what I say might sound bitter, but it's the truth. Much of what I say might sound like it's stirring up trouble, but it's the truth. Much of what I say might sound like it is hate, but it's the truth.” – Malcolm X

- Ludovica Grieco

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