Jonathan Charteris-Black: Politicians and Rhetoric Reviewed

27/06/2013 10:59 BST | Updated 26/08/2013 10:12 BST

Jonathan Charteris-Black's[1] Politicians and Rhetoric is a stand-alone volume that looks at the art of persuasion, speech-making, and the central use of the metaphor in political discourses by a selection of leading British and American political orators.

As shown through a collection of indicative discussions, the author challenges the common perception of rhetoric as being an essentially dark art of the political process by highlighting not only its virtue but also prevailing relevance in mature western democracies. Indeed, how elites communicate is as important as what they are seeking to communicate, which combined produces an effective speech.

Moreover, rhetoric should not be seen as something which gets in the way of party politics, as believed by detractors. Rather it is one part of the essential lifeblood that enables party politics to function, connecting the political actor with their chosen audience. As a result, their policies, philosophy, and ideology can be communicated. As a recent example of the importance of oratorical and rhetorical skills, Obama's first 2012 debate performance was significantly lacking in effective devices, whilst his subsequent performances were much improved because of their reincorporation, illustrating the importance of effective political communication.

As the author acknowledges, this necessity is not restricted to any single political ideology. It is a requirement of all political actors to find their voice. This approach gives the volume a clear sense of cross-political relevance, which focuses on the art of rhetorical technique and rhythm, rather than on how a collection of communicators impacted upon their respective ideology.

Reflecting this, the author appropriately draws from a range of leading political figures, with a clear emphasis on party leaders (Churchill, Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, Bush, and Obama). However he rightly acknowledges that leading orators can also impact upon party politics without necessarily being the leader (Luther King and Powell as examples), although it must be acknowledged that the balance between leader and leading orators is somewhat mismatched in the volume. This quibble should not detract, however I do believe there is more to be said about leading communicators who stay outside of their party leaderships - Palin, Boris Johnson, and David Miliband as effective examples. Such figures develop constituencies of their own within their party, and can help shape the ideological direction of travel undertaken by their party elite. As an example, Cameron over Europe is being compelled to follow the wishes of his Conservative backbenchers because of their high communicative impact. Bill Cash as an obvious case in point, but also David Davis, Zac Goldsmith, John Whittingdale[2] each use the power of metaphor to connect with an audience, influencing elite decisions. It is clear, however, that criteria for inclusion in the volume was based more on cross-Atlantic appeal to the reader rather than simply oratorical ability or their ideological impact. This suggests further scholarship in this area may have value, scrutinising another rhetorical dimension, that of leading orators.

Metaphor helps construct a narrative which the politician uses to connect their vision to the interests of the audience, thereby giving them an accessible and basic understanding of the argument being conveyed. Churchill is the first analysed by the author, in which he argues metaphor was used by the wartime Prime Minister to construct the narrative of Britain as the fortress of light against the German evil forces of darkness (p77). This use of metaphor proved most effective because of its connections with pre-existing cultural beliefs vis-à-vis Christian values and the belief of light triumphing over dark, playing into the innate belief that God is in some way British, carrying with it the inverse implication that Satan is a German, implying Britain's victory is a scriptural inevitability. Politically and socially, this proved effective with his large audience in compelling some to fight the forces of evil in the name of God and righteousness. Needless to say, in reality Christian beliefs straddled the combatants, with similar cultural norms in both, yet using this kind of metaphor gave Churchill a sense of compelling Biblical 'rightness'.

Martin Luther King used a poetic rhythm to ensure his use of metaphor encapsulates the attention of the audiences. Combined with parison and antithesis, his speeches contained contrasts to construct narratives and stories of aspirational equality. He does this by highlighting where they are, and where they want to be. For example, "now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice"[3] (p106). By painting racial segregation as a dark and desolate valley, he persuades his audience that the status quo is something to escape from, whilst achieving racial justice is part of the journey towards equality. This also implicitly connects the metaphor with the early American pioneers, facing hardships as they explored a desolate land to build a new nation, inversely portraying their opponents as the absolutists from which they escaped. Importantly, this would also be a long process, with defeats and victories along the way.

The author argues that Reagan constructed 'intergalactic myths' because of the onset of new technologies, globalisation, and that he often looked to the stars as the next American frontier of exploration. He also sought to connect economic growth with space travel, which the author suggests made him sound forward looking and technologically rooted. Unlike most conservative traditionalists, this gave his rhetoric a sense of newness, whilst relating those same philosophies of economic individualism and philanthropy to the future. He also alluded to fictional representations in space, comparing the Soviet Union to Palpatine's Galactic Empire in which most of Eastern Europe was unwittingly enslaved, and long awaited liberation from Luke Skywalker and the USAF. The author argues "intergalactic and light metaphors proved effective... as they did not require logical evidence but instead relied on artistic proof of pathos" which made them relatable to his audience (p162). It would be facile to suggest this was Reagan's sole use of metaphor, however it illustrates their importance in his rhetoric, and how he came to be regarded as one of America's most memorable Republican Presidents.

In terms of UK examples, the author rightly argues Thatcher used metaphor to contrast her rightness with the obvious wrongness of her opponents. For example, 'Conservatism is a Lifeforce' vs 'Labour/Socialism is a Deathforce'; 'Conservative Policies are a Medicine', 'Labour/Socialist policies are a Disease', et cetera (p193). The oppositional stance was a consistent core of her rhetoric, constructing myths that revolved around emphasising Conservative righteousness against Socialist evil. Of course, this was purposefully divisive in order to tap in to the neoliberal reconstruction of the British economy. For the author, this form of myth creation is highly effective but short-lived because the creation of conflict requires - by human instinct - resolution (pp193-94). Thatcherism became something in need of resolving not continuing, because humanity is essentially social and individualism runs contrary to that instinct. Consequently, Thatcher's forms of sharp contrasts yielded powerful but short term political dividends, for which the Conservatives pay a high electoral price for attempting to continue[4].

To see how important rhetorical metaphors can be in challenging perceptions of divisions in parties, the author argues Blair used morality to construct "ethics as politics" (p231). Conventionally, this enabled Blair to contextualise his appeal to the Labour Party using absolutes, and that going forward to victory with him would be morally wise, whilst going backwards to defeat with another leader would be the inverse. Blair's use of metaphor and rhetoric strongly revolved around moral journeys which the party needed to undertake. Blair used metaphor to do more than lead, he used it to shape how the party saw the rationale for socialism. Such was the strength of his rhetorical abilities, he was able to literally change social and moral perceptions of individual activists. For this reason, he is regarded one of Labour's most memorable orators.

Metaphors enable the orator to control their audience. But more than that, the author argues that "metaphors are very effective in political communication because they provide cognitively accessible ways of communicating politics through drawing on ways of thinking by analogy" (p321). Politicians tap into the expectations, fears, and needs of their chosen audience, and use those to advance their own political message. Today, a greater awareness of effective communication techniques has enabled political elites to more overtly use rhetorical and oratorical devices, making their academic study more significant than ever. In the broader field of political science, the academic work of Alan Finlayson, James Martin, Judi Atkins, amongst others are drawing attention to the study of communicative methods. As with this book, modern rhetorical analyses are drawn from the Greek and Roman philosophers and contemporised for today's politician. Despite its importance, it remains an under-developed area of party political analysis, to which this book provides a much needed and vital boost.

Its target audience are those with a particular interest in rhetoric and political communication, yet this should not detract politically interested scholars from taking much from it. Indeed, given the importance of the study of rhetoric and oratory in party politics, this book bolsters the intellectual capital of anyone with an interest in either, making it a 'must have' for any political scientist, with the slight caveat that more could be said about leading orators.


[1] Hereafter referred to as 'the author'.

[2] - 15/1/2013


[4] For more on this, Richard Hayton's Reconstructing Conservatism is worth reading.