CCR Symposium: Rhetoric and the Audience Problem
Deven is surely right that rhetoric isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’re all lawyers here, and every lawyer uses rhetoric to frame arguments. It’s a basic tool of persuasion.
At the same time, rhetoric can be highly audience-dependent. Consider Republican politicians. These days, almost every Republican politician uses the rhetoric of Reaganism to appeal to the base. The GOP loves Reagan, and most GOP politicians who need the base (which is most of them) try to create the impression that they are just like Reagan. The idea is to trigger the positive associations that the GOP base has about Reagan and to try to transfer that same passion and enthusiasm for the candidate. But that message is audience dependent, because different groups react to different rhetroic in different ways. If you’re running for elected office in San Francisco or New York, you wouldn’t want to wrap yourself in Reaganism: That audience has mostly negative associations of Reagan, so the rhetoric would be counterproductive.
In this case, I wonder if the”civil rights” rhetoric has a narrower audience than some of us think. The rhetoric may have a great deal of power to some audiences, be more or less neutral to other audiences, and even perhaps have a negative connotation to others. That isn’t necessarily criticism, of course, any more than it’s criticism to point out that so many GOP politicians are painting themselves as the next Ronald Reagan. Each advocate can pick her or her audience. But to the extent the use of rhetoric is designed to persuade a particular audience, I think it’s worth asking how broad the group is that is likely to be persuaded by the use of that particular rhetoric.