Joe Knows the Persuasion Playbook
Watching Joe Biden talk to America last night I flashed back to my first course in the first quarter of my first year at my land grant university in the Midwest. The Rhetoric of Western Thought had the heft of college. While the principles of persuasion that had originated with the Greeks seemed musty at first, it wasn’t long before they felt chiseled in truth.
During an age when oration was the alternative to violence for changing minds, it made sense that best practices would emerge for building alliances grounded in belief. You need not have studied classical languages to recognize the three rhetorical pillars that underpin the Greek oral tradition in the remnants of language we all use today.
The case you are making could be grounded in logos — the logic of the thing, conveyed via a sequence crafted to dismantle objections. Or you could find the pathos in an argument — using the emotional force of empathy or sympathy as an invitation for listeners to trade their apathy for our humanity. Or you might personally advocate for the ethics of the case, offering your ethos as collateral for its validity. Trust me to tell you the truth.
Back to Joe Biden. Several sentences into his remarks on the occasion of his First 100 Days speech it was evident that he believed what he was saying. It seems like such a simple expectation from a head of a government. Trust me to tell you the truth. But after four years and tens of thousands of lies — a period where neither logos, nor pathos, nor ethos made an appearance — hearing the truth was startling. Refreshing. Cleansing.
Joe Biden (or “Joebiden” or “J’biden” … don’t you love how quickly we’ve turned his name into a portmanteau for ‘folksy effectiveness’) has been putting the rhetoric of Western thought to good use for decades. When it comes to leveraging this rhetorical trinity to whip votes, he’s got this.
When he summarized the logic behind his progressive agenda — i.e., the trillions required to serve the millions in need supported by the clawback of hundreds of billions in avoided taxes — he revealed the long game of a Septuagenarian placing markers across a future he will never see.
When he described kneeling down to look George Floyd’s fatherless daughter in the eye (“She’s a little tyke, so I needed to, to see her.”) his pathos was palpable.
When he lobbied Senators to engage on bills that he had personally helped draft to (pick your heartbreak) redress cancer or gun violence or spousal abuse, he asked us to join his fight to defeat societal wrongs.
As Joe suggests, we have entered a period where the arguments we advance defending democracy over autocracy will need to sharpen considerably if we are to persuade an anxious electorate and a watching world.
Historians tell us eras get the leaders they deserve. If so, having some gravitas at the mic for the rhetoric ahead is reassuring.
Elections have consequences.