The Art of Artless Persuasion

A democratically elected leader finds herself in an ambiguous situation: she is appointed as a servant of her constituency by ballot, yet she is subsequently expected to exert robust and steady leadership over them. She is responsible for leading those who sovereignly selected her. To be successful, she must become a paradox: a faithful servant executing the burdens of office and a manifestation of confident, driven leadership.

This demand creates a systemic conundrum: if the population perceives that she too easily tweaks her plans or principles, she will be ridiculed as spineless, incompetent, and wishy-washy. If she charges ahead with policy agendas despite public outcry, she will be accused of undemocratically ignoring the voice of the people. Democracy thus forces her to constantly and convincingly explain herself to the public, in order to keep as many citizens ‘on side’ as possible. In a democracy every act is scrutinized, and therefore every act must be justified. In other words, democracy inherently necessitates rhetoric.

Yet here the leader runs into another terrific problem: people do not like rhetoric. Even though a democratic state relies on debate and discussion, citizens naturally become extremely suspicious of political rhetoric: if it is flippant, it is written off as just more deceitful, dishonest babble from self-interested politicians; if it is convincingly persuasive, it is seen as being undemocratically manipulative, and therefore dangerous.

Rhetoric is thus the primary tool in the democratic leader’s kit, even though rhetoric itself is generally considered pathetically useless (mere words and promises sure to be broken) or as lethally treacherous (tyrannically persuasive and illegitimately influential over the minds of the masses).

Consequently, the democratically elected leader instinctively attempts to make her rhetoric not sound like rhetoric. John Kane and Haig Patapan call this the “art of artless persuasion.” (Kane & Patapan 2012:72-74) When she leads, she must demonstrate deference to the sovereign masses who appointed her, which means her only mechanism for leading is her voice — that is, rhetoric. But rhetoric, while it is essential, is equally suspected as being deceptive, manipulative, and dishonest.

The democratic leader therefore must seek to persuade without sounding persuasive. She has no choice but to use words to influence people — people who are automatically skeptical of her words to begin with.

This is the recipe that brews the general attitudes many of us have about politicians: we can never be fully certain that they are ever telling the truth. We must suspect that every statement is just a talking point. It’s all strategic jockeying, leveraging, and manoeuvring for some agenda. After all, while we demand that our leaders be honest, transparent, and straight to the point, we also know that we will surely punish leaders who simplistically tell us the truth.

This is one of the great ironies of democracy: we elect people to be calculating and strategic leaders and spokespersons on our behalf, even while we are simultaneously suspicious of the calculating and strategic manner of speech we force them to adopt.

Today, the question is not, ‘Do all politicians lie?’ but rather, ‘Does the structure of democracy implicitly require politicians to perform like actors?’ Like critics at the theatre we scrutinize politicians’ every move, eager to expose a lie in their performance. And then, once we’ve proved that it was all just an act, we ridicule their inability (and apparent unwillingness) to execute our script exactly.

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