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The Rec Report

Wednesday, 02 January 2008


Economics, Ideology and Rhetoric

In my previous Rec Report, I suggested that political candidates must be seen in terms of three areas or points: economics, ideology and rhetoric. Economics refers to the viability of a candidate, his or her funding (not their economic policies, which is included under ideology). Ideology, as I suggested in the previous report, refers to commitments. Ideology is not to be seen merely as the ideas in someone's head, although ideas are some of its manifestations. Ideology refers to the framing, the constraints, the motivations, and the complete construction of worldview. Ideology thus impels, constrains and frames action, while providing the frame of reference for its interpretation. Rhetoric, of course, involves expression. Rhetoric is the language, the techniques of persuasion, the message and the way that speakers relate to audiences. Rhetoric also relates to the other two areas. All three terms are interconnected and mutually influencing. As such, a political actor or candidate may be viewed in terms of a triangle, not unlike what rhetoricians refer to as the rhetorical triangle. The rhetorical triangle is a representation of the classical rhetorical situation into which every interlocutor is interpolated upon engaging an audience.

On the right, I show what I am calling the political triangle, which shows the elements of political representation and which includes rhetoric as one of its terms. On the left, I show the classical rhetorical triangle, which demonstrates the elements of rhetoric, including the speaker and her credibility (ethos), the message (or logos) and the audience (or pathos). The three terms are reciprocally related. Change one and the others must change. (The changing of the speaker and her message for different audiences represents one the most challenging aspects of political representation.).


The point of this demonstration is to show that the political speaker must engage in a rhetorical situation that involves self, audience and message. Each of the terms must shift to accommodate changes in any other terms. The rhetorical situation is then imported into the political triangle as one of its terms (lower left). Similarly, the two other terms on the political triangle may also be elaborated. Economics or funding is not singular but involves several parties and types of parties (corporations, individuals, unions, etc.). The complexities of ideology are legend.

Except in cases of talking to oneself (and arguably not even then) no speaker is ever the only audience of her speech act. Likewise, the message or logic of an argument is not the same as the pathetic appeal or the audience appealed to. But the terms affect one another.

Similarly, on the political triangle, the terms cannot be equated or collapsed. A politician's ideology is seldom if ever identical to his or her rhetoric. Nor does ideology easily map onto funding. (George W. Bush represents perhaps the most blatant relationship between funding and policy in historical memory. However, his allegiance to social conservatism has little to do with funding, except that some constituents with money share such ideological convictions.)

Despite the claims of some candidates, the terms of the rhetorical and political triangles cannot be collapsed into one another. First, the rhetorical element is complicated in consideration of the various audiences being addressed. Rhetoric is complicated and rarely maps onto ideology perfectly. In fact, that some candidates represent such a collapse is itself a rhetorical maneuver. For example, if X candidate claims that his ideology depends on and is utterly synonymous with his funding source, that he represents only one contingent in his audience, then he is employing a particular rhetoric. That rhetoric may be regarded as populist-if said audience is "the people." The rhetoric would be blatantly corporatist if the audience consisted of corporations and the speaker openly avowed a corporate agenda. The latter rhetorical position is unlikely for reasons I suggested in the previous Rec Report-the avowed egalitarian ideals of our democratic Republic are antithetical to such a straightforward corporatist rhetorical positioning.

As I suggested, one thus must weigh funding, ideology and rhetoric carefully, considering how each term is constrained and dependent upon the others. The complications of the political triangle may explain how a candidate may be a corporate favorite, while her parliamentary record reflects quite different ideological commitments. The payoff for corporations may be rhetorical. Similarly, a worker at a corporation may avow a corporate ideology when speaking to her boss, while she may be motivated by quite different ideological convictions. How many workers actually believe that corporations should be motivated only by profit even if their own livelihood may be reduced or jeopardized by such an exclusive profit motive? Conversely, what employee would openly avow a socialist agenda in a corporate setting, and still hope to keep his or her job?

Any candidate who suggests that his rhetoric, funding and ideology are one in the same is simplifying the matter for rhetorical purposes.

Dr. Rec, The Rec Report

Michael D. Rectenwald, Ph.D.

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