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OnWords

OnWords: Campaign Rhetoric

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Headed into yet another election cycle, we all have the opportunity to wade through a deep sewer of campaign rhetoric.

For lost souls who insist that language ought to correspond to reality, this can be a difficult time. Fact-checking websites have a field day comparing what candidates say with what reliable sources claim to be true.

Postmodernists point out that the words we use don’t really have that much of a relationship with reality anyway, and maybe there even isn’t a reality at all outside of the words we use to describe it.

But rhetoric wouldn’t bother us if it didn’t work. Donald Trump can say anything he wants, and all his followers will believe it simply because he said it.

Rhetoric had a bad reputation long before Donald Trump kicked it into the dirt, though. Socrates complained about the sophists of ancient Greece who used flowery words instead of rational inquiry in order to gain influence.

Nowadays, pundits have pretty much given up on campaign rhetoric bearing any truth, so they just focus on the impact of rhetoric on poll numbers.

That’s dangerous: By not critiquing the utility of political rhetoric, we no longer expect candidates’ words to have substance, to the great detriment of democracy.