Many of us have felt a tingle at the orations of a leader. Whether the person is a pastor or coach, military commander or politician, the effect is the same: we are overcome with feelings of approval and admiration. Orwell gives us a disturbingly familiar sense of what it is like to fall under the spell of political rhetoric in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a small lean man from the Inner Party speaks at a political demonstration:
His voice, made metallic by the amplifiers, boomed forth an endless catalogue of atrocities, massacres, deportations, looting, rapings, torture of prisoners, bombing of civilians, lying propaganda, unjust aggressions, broken treaties. It was almost impossible to listen to him without being first convinced and then maddened (1949: 188).
We are awash in uncertainty. Is he telling the truth? He surely knows more than we what our “enemies” are doing. Whether it is the medium or the context or carefully chosen words, or the fact that this is “our man,” we decide—mostly unconsciously—that he is right. We are convinced.
These feelings, when we consider them, can be disturbing—they come unbidden, they are unreflective, and we cannot always say just what it is about the speech that makes us feel this way. Is it the ideas? The images? The words themselves? The charisma? Each time we come away feeling changed, but in nebulous ways. Do we know more than we did, or have we simply become more loyal to an ideology? Whatever feelings these speeches elicit and whatever changes they engender in society, their influence on our beliefs and behaviors is palpable. We find ourselves disposed to defend these speakers against criticism; we support them with our loyalties, our votes, and our money. And politics is big money. ... (from p. 1).
In Winning Votes By Abusing Reason, I argue that political rhetoric undermines our ability to form responsible political beliefs and that this problem cannot be solved by democratic or paternalistic approaches. Our rational faculties are beset by fallacies and biases that politicians not only manipulate but also suffer from. And large political stages, in which votes mean little and political claims are too vague and disconnected from our daily lives leaves us awash in uncertainty. However, I conclude that we can thrive in spite of the problem of political rhetoric by understanding our rational limitations and refocusing our epistemic energies into programs and projects that more directly affect our interests.
Winning Votes By Abusing Reason: Responsible Belief and Political Rhetoric will be published by Lexington Books and is planned to be released in December 2016.