I wrote about the rhetoric of fear a few days before the election and noted that the “fear card” has always been played in American politics. It is part of the spectacle of politics. The rhetorical situation dictates the timing and proportion of this appeal. Get the timing and proportion (kairos) right for the political moment and you win.
Long-time Rhetorica reader Tim S., author of Jig’s Old Saws, wrote in the comments to my last post on election day that “the best campaigner won. I also think the best campaigner has won the Presidential campaign in the past.” I think he’s right about that. But what exactly does it mean to be the best campaigner?
(Also from his comment: A question of how/if campaign quality maps to governance. Be watching for more on that as the weeks unfold. Please send any thoughts you may have by e-mail. I’ll be happy to post them.)
My post on the rhetoric of fear begins to the answer the question of what it means to be the best campaigner. I don’t want to make this sound uncomplicated, but I would begin to answer by arguing that kairos, pathos, and ethos play the most important roles in creating a persuasive (i.e. winning) campaign.
In a nutshell (i.e. certainly not complete or exhaustive), here’s how I see Obama’s win and McCain’s loss working:
Pathos (the appeal to emotion): What do voters actually fear? It’s not what you think they ought to fear. Advantage Obama.
Ethos (the appeal to character): Who is the candidate in fact (situated ethos)? Who does the candidate say he is (invented ethos)? I think invented and situated ethos need to match in order to create a unified and persuasive sense of the candidate. I call it a tie between the two campaigns in this regard. But I give the advantage to Obama in another sense: The McCain campaign spent entirely too much time talking about Obama.
Kairos (timing and proportion): Presidential campaigns are nasty affairs. Always have been and probably always will be. Was this one the nastiest in recent memory? I’m not sure. I’d prefer to take a sober look at it a few months from now. One thing, however, does appear to accurately describe what occurred (a hypothesis): Obama’s message (i.e. his typical stump speech and talking points) seemed to remain consistent in tone and timing throughout the campaign. McCain’s tone and timing changed during and following the Republican Convention. I think he got the “fear card” wrong and failed to tell his story by spending too much time trying to whip up the wrong fears. Advantage Obama.
Now: How will all this (and other rhetorical maneuvers I’ve not mentioned) map to quality governance?