The Rhetorical Denouement of Democracy
As a communications specialist at a major state university, I spent my entire professional career (1974-2019) teaching a course on “Argument and Advocacy” and studying the role of argumentation in public discourse.
My teaching and research have emphasized the importance and need for rational and logical reasoning, as well as the willingness of arguers to engage in “personal risk” by putting themselves in the shoes of others. and thus be open to persuasion rather than becoming dogmatic and recalcitrant.
Moreover, I assumed that people are indeed able to detect, expose and not be fooled by fallacious reasoning. As I taught my students, fallacious and unrational speech is practiced by people of all political and ideological stripes – this faulty and invalid reasoning is an equal opportunity problem.
Maybe I’ve become too skeptical, maybe even cynical. But looking at the political events of recent years, I wonder if we now live in a world where the traditional principles of argumentation – going back to the work of the rhetoricians of ancient Greece and Rome – actually guide and govern our behavior. rhetoric in public. square.
It is enough to observe the recent unstable political events to understand the gravity of my concern. Let us take a few examples illustrating this concern:
- The politicization of the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas;
- Heated abortion debates in the wake of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision to overturn Roe v. Wade;
- The large number of citizens who accept the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”;
- The popularity of a wide range of conspiracy theories;
- A reluctance of many Americans to accept science on issues such as COVID and climate change;
- The prevalence of extreme hatred and racism;
- The growing polarization of beliefs and the resulting incivility in our interactions with others;
- The erosion of accepted standards of truth in speech and writing.
Of course, I hope I’m wrong. However, if my suspicions are correct, it is no exaggeration to say that the end of democracy is a real possibility. After all, democracy has always been rhetorically supported, perpetuated, and nurtured by rational deliberation. This has always been the case, despite strong political differences.
As one of my colleagues astutely pointed out, we must always remember that it is entirely possible for a democracy to vote itself out of existence, perhaps deliberately or even unintentionally: is inherent in the concept of the “will of the people”.
Argumentation and its reliance on reasoning and evidence is key to maintaining the rational discourse necessary to preserve democracy.
Selfishly, I hope that what I have taught and sought for over 40 years has not been in vain.
As is often said, we are at an inflection point in American history. It forces us to think deeply about how we argue and how our political discourse – whether that of Democrats, Republicans, conservatives or liberals – needs to be changed to ensure the survival of this great experiment that we call the United States.
Simply put, failure to change our rhetoric will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the American democratic republic.
Richard Cherwitz is the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin, and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortiuma nationally recognized interdisciplinary initiative designed to leverage knowledge for social good by developing “citizen-scholars”.