Saturday, May 03, 2014

Purpose and Persuasion: The Power of Rhetoric in American Political History

Professor Masugi traces some of the rhetorical "trends" in some of the key American political speeches. He attempts to provide a politically unbiased view of what actually made a good speech. He also emphasized how speeches were a product of their time. As time progresses, society often tends to "remember" speeches in a way different than they were heard at the time. Lincoln's Gettysburg address uses language that to us sounds archaic. However, to his audience, the biblical language was not all that unusually. The allusions to biblical versus also helped to give more power to his views.

Often in US history, big shifts in the political leanings are accompanied by a master speaker. The powerful speeches often have a way of drawing the listener to independently generate the exact thoughts that the speaker desires. In the case of Frederick Douglass, he began a speech be giving many points critical of Lincoln and his "lax" attitude towards freeing slaves. Then he turned it around and praised him for doing exactly what needed to be done at the time to maximize the freedom of his people. The speech was thus able to unite an audience of divergent views.

Franklin Roosevelt gave speeches couched in patriotism, while indirectly calling his opponents unpatriotic for not supporting his agenda. Reagan later turned the tables, telling the people how his conservative ways were the true American ways. Both were master speakers that lead to big shifts in the country's political leanings.

Obama is also a master of oratory. An the campaign trail, he stressed the unity of the country torn by a sharp political divide. His speeches are often politically neutral (often to the extend that many could have just as well been given by his opponent.) By staying away from the controversial views in his speeches, he can steer the message in the direction he desires, while the dirty work gets done elsewhere.

In the day of modern technology, we get our political information from many different sources. However, in spite of a bad reputation, political speech making remains important.

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