Mid Term Exam

Below is a midterm exam that students in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University are taking this evening.

How would you do?

Midterm Exam
Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric
Spring 2013

Part One: Short Answer – 50 points
5 points for each correct answer, partial credit will be given for partially correct answers
Answer the below briefly

1: According to our class discussion, what is the basic approach to successful persuasion (my steps to any persuasion effort)?

2: In “Protagoras” what does Protagoras claim to teach?

3: What does Plato think of Protagoras’ claim?

4: How does Aristotle define rhetoric?

5: List and define Aristotle’s three proofs or appeals.

6: What does Robert Bellah mean by the term “civil religion”?

7: What does Burke mean by “scene/act ratio”?

8: According to Weaver, what is the best type of rhetorical appeal?

9: What does Weaver mean when he says you should appeal to “historical man”?

10: According to Bormann, what are the stages of a rhetorical movement?

Part Two: Essay – 50 points
Using one of the approaches to rhetorical analysis we’ve discussed this semester, analyze the presidential nomination acceptance speech by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in 1964.

Your essay will be graded on insight, demonstration that you have thought about and can apply a course reading, and clarity.

To Prove You're Right, Tell Me Why You're Wrong

Before you decide your new idea is good, explain to colleagues why it’s bad. Before trying to make a new idea work, understand how it could fail.

A feature of human behavior is that we tend to repeat things we think worked. Part of navigating our complex world is relying on what seems to have worked before, saving us from having to think about it again. In most cases this makes sense – gravity isn’t going anywhere (and if it does, odds are good the floating coffee is the least of your problems). But in our professional lives it can also lead to ruts and less than ideal strategies and tactics.

Advocates, like generals, are usually fighting the last battle. We take lessons from our last efforts and apply those lessons to the task at hand. Unfortunately the lessons we take may not be the reasons we succeeded or failed, and they may not apply to the current situation.

One way to avoid mistakes based on habit or poor analysis is to challenge every idea of consequence. Before launching a new campaign, holding a press conference, arranging a lobby day, whatever, explain why it is both a good idea, and why it is a bad idea. Explain what you believe will go right, and what you think could go wrong. Articulate, and defend, your assumptions.

If there is no downside to an idea, if nothing can go wrong, go back and think it through again. There are opportunity costs to everything (while reading this you’re not doing something else), and every plan has a flaw, even if it’s only the size of a garbage chute on a ship the size of a small moon.

Walk through your idea and ask:
What does this idea assume? Are those assumptions reasonable? Can we test them?
How will this idea anger or frustrate our objectives? Could it be seen in a bad light by those we need to reach? From rain to rage, what could go wrong?
If something goes wrong, what do we do about it?
What else could we be doing instead, what is this idea taking time and resources away from? Are those better ideas?

Answering these questions may lead to adjustments to your idea that make it better, or they may lead you to abandon the idea entirely. And if you do go ahead with the idea, and the idea fails, you won’t be surprised and you will be prepared to respond.

Advice for Advocates: Don't Panic (HT Arthur Dent)

In honor of what would be Douglas Adams’ 61st birthday I offer the following advice for advocates: Don’t Panic.

“Don’t Panic” is of course the phrase written on the cover of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The advice is meant for hitch hikers working their way around the cosmos, and is also good for advocates.

If something happens and seems immediately and obviously disastrous, stop and consider before responding. To quote a professor I had at Emerson College: don’t just do something, sit there. Take a moment to consider what impact, if any, the event will have on those with power over your goals. Consider the crisis in the context of your larger campaign, and in the context of the lives of those you’re trying to reach. Your really big deal might be someone else blip, if that. It might actually be a really big deal of course – but better to check first and respond second. That you’re paying a lot of attention and care a lot doesn’t mean anyone else notices or cares.

A quick case study makes this point.

In the first half of 2012 opponents of federal support for solar energy spent millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars, attacking Solyndra and loan guarantees for the solar energy industry. Ads ran during the summer Olympics and candidates railed against “green jobs” policies. The solar energy industry was reasonably concerned that the attacks would damage the industry. The Solar Energy Industries Association conducted a survey in October of 2012 to test this hypothesis and found that half of all likely voters had never even heard of Solyndra. Of those who had, most still supported federal subsidies for solar energy.

The solar energy industry responded to the attacks, as they should have (as a matter of full disclosure, I was hired to build and run the Solar Energy Industry Association’s response campaign). But the response wasn’t about Solyndra, or even loan guarantees. The response was a general positive message about solar power, and was focused on a handful of states. There was never an attempt to go point-for-point on attacks no one outside the solar energy industry and Republican activist circles knew or cared about. Instead the effort was geared at shoring up existing support and making it even less likely that the industry would be attacked in the future because such attacks fail, somewhat spectacularly.

Your job as an advocate is to focus on the ultimate goal of your effort, not to respond to every moment in that moment. Before demanding a newspaper correct a quote, before buying ads responding to a claim, and before diverting scarce resources from advancing you core mission, pause. If a response is necessary be sure that response advances your goals and doesn’t get sucked into the goals of your opponent. If you do respond, make sure you do so in ways that use limited resources as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Data For Advocates: Risk Averse Politicians Think Voters Are More Conservative Than They Actually Are

Advocates should remember that elected officials tend to be more interested in getting re-elected than in making history.

Most who work for advocacy organizations want to create bold change, shape history, drive sweeping reforms. Advocates behave in ways that will result in personal and professional rewards, and they avoid acting in ways that will get them in trouble with their employers or that are at odds with how they think the world works. If the organization wants to make history and be in your face while doing it, then the organization’s staff will get in your face and shout “we’re making history!” rather than suggest that shouting at people may not be the most effective form of persuasion available.

Most elected officials similarly avoid doing things they think will cost them their jobs. Elected officials behave in ways for which they don’t think they will be punished at the ballot box – risk aversion beats the potential of reward-seeking, risk-taking behavior. (Before you point fingers at how bad this is, write down a list of all the things you did at work in the last month that you thought were dumb but that you thought would make your boss happy).

One tricky bit in all this is that most of us, including advocates and elected officials, are wrong about what others think. One thing legislators get wrong is how conservative their constituents are - by a lot – as pointed out in this recent piece (loaded with links to outside research). Most voters are more liberal than their representatives believe them to be. It should therefore come as no surprise that elected officials, who don’t want to get too sideways of their voters, tend to vote relatively conservatively.

Smart advocates know that elected officials are risk averse, and rather than asking elected officials to be bold (which is inherently risky behavior) they ask elected officials to take the next obvious, inevitable, popular step. With this new research, advocates know that what elected officials think is the baseline for electorally risky behavior is off by about 10 percent. Smart advocates use local polls, meetings with constituents, letters, and other tools to point out that there is a lot of safe electoral ground to move onto.

As an advocate you want to keep your job, after all it’s a tough job market and you have rent to pay. You think you know your boss and how much leeway you have, but you’re largely guessing and research indicates your assessment is probably off. As a result you may sometimes take what to you feels like a bold stand, but mostly you behave in ways that seem to mostly make sense and mostly move in the right direction, and most likely won’t cost you your paycheck.

You should not be surprised when elected officials behave the same way – instead, you should adjust your strategy to account for it.

Lessons for Advocates (and Republicans) from Arsenal

Watching my beloved Arsenal lose to local rivals Tottenham on Sunday reminded me of a recent conversation with a student about Republican efforts to close social media divide. The lesson for advocates from both is to keep an eye on winning, not flashy things that look like winning but that do not themselves count as victory.

Arsenal are one of the great teams of English football, but Arsenal haven’t won any trophy of any sort in years and it is nearly certain they will finish this season in fifth place. Sunday’s game was indicative of the problem – some flashy looking play, long stretches of control of the ball, fun to watch. Then a bit of sloppiness and lack of speed at the back and Tottenham, the historically pretty good but never a serious contender, were up 1-0. Then it happened again, 2-0. Arsenal got one back but in the end it wasn’t enough. Pretty and popular don’t matter if the other team scores more goals.

Which brings me to my student. He is part of the growing number of Republicans arguing the Party needs to get better online to win. When I pressed my student about the results of the online efforts – if any of his friends would have voted differently had Romney’s Facebook page had more “likes” or if they had seen more online ads, he wasn’t sure. It was clear to him that the Obama campaign played better online, but when asked how that play converted to votes things got a bit fuzzy.

Tottenham focused on the point of the game: goals. Republicans (and other advocates) would do well to learn Tottenham’s lesson.

Advocates often mistake flashy or eye-catching for successful. If an opponent wins, and has full page ads in papers, advocates want full page ads, without taking the time to examine the connection between the ads and victory. Advocates see their opponents in the press, so do all they can to get in the press themselves, without considering the connection between the coverage (and its tone) and the policy outcomes.

The point of a soccer game is to score more goals than the other team. Arsenal is an historic team with a legacy of beautiful play –and they sit in fifth, victims of an efficient and organized opponent. The point in politics is to win more votes, either at the ballot box or on the floor of the legislature. That’s it. The best advocates keep both eyes focused squarely on what it will take to win and demand that every tactic, no matter how cool or fun or being used by others, takes a clear step to victory. Efficient and organized beats flashy every time.

Advice for Advocates from Pulp Fiction

Weinstein also zeroed in on key American critics at Cannes, including Janet Maslin, of The New York Times. “Harvey was targeting her as the one most likely to write the right rave review, and he set it up so she would have a connection with Quentin beforehand. He had done his homework,” says Mike Simpson. “He knew who everybody on the jury was, and he knew which hotel they were in and what their room number was. Anyway, it’s a rave review, and Harvey makes copies, and before the jury members see the movie, he slips a copy of the review under their doors.”
- “Cinema Tarantino: The Making of Pulp Fiction” Vanity Fair

Pulp Fiction was made for about $8.5 million dollars and grossed about $214, making it the top-grossing independent film of all time. Before the movie’s release it had already made money – the international distribution rights were sold for $11 million. One reason is, of course, is that it’s a great movie. An over the top, in your face, great movie. Another reason is that Harvey Weinstein ran a successful campaign to ensure the movie got attention and had the chance to go on to succeed. A lot of great scripts never get bought, many that get bought never get produced, many that get produced never get seen, and many that get seen never get noticed. Weinstein ensured that every step in the process was successful. As the paragraph above notes, he did so by running a political campaign.

The first step in the campaign is determining what Weinstein wanted, the clear goal. In movies that’s easy to measure: ticket sales.

The second step is how to make that happen, determining who has the power and ensuring power gets the right message, in the right medium, from the right messenger, at the right time. That is the crux of the story of Pulp Fiction at Cannes. Winning an award at Cannes would put the film on movie-goers agendas. That meant making sure Cannes judges gave the film an award. Weinstein held the film until Cannes, and when it was shown it was not for reviewers broadly but rather for one reviewer who would likely say good things and to whom others listened. That one good review was then shared immediately with the judges at Cannes. There was no public awareness strategy, billboards or TV ads: it was a focused, directed, effort at a handful of people. Pulp Fiction was the unanimous choice for the top award that year. It won because it was a great film – and because Weinstein ensured it was set up to be judged as such.

In addition to a great read, the story of Pulp Fiction is instructive for advocates. There are a lot of good ideas for addressing serious challenges, most of which never see the light of day. Most policy ideas (good and bad) are ignored, and most of those that are considered get rejected. Success is not simply a matter of having a great idea – it is a matter of ensuring that idea is heard by the right people, in the right medium, at the right time. The best advocates never lose sight of the goal and never do anything that deviates from the path to that goal.

Advice for Advocates: Next time you want to talk about politics, talk about the weather instead.

The best advocates talk about what everyone else talks about: the weather. Very few people experience climate change, but we all deal with the weather. I don’t care much about gun control, but I am very troubled by all of the recent shootings. The health care system is beyond most people’s comprehension, but everyone knows how expensive insurance is and how hard it can be to see a doctor.

And in Columbia, South Carolina people are very concerned with poison ivy.

Advocates tend to work in the aggregate. They work on the prison system, the health care system, long term effects of global climate change, human rights, and so forth. But most of us, most of the time, live in the specific and in the immediate. Put another way, advocates work deductively from general problem to specific example, but most people live inductively connecting specific problems to general systems (our connections and conclusions may not be right, but we draw them).

The challenge for advocates is to make the aggregate relevant to how most of us (and most advocates) live in their daily lives, and then to connect that immediacy back to the larger issue. The challenge is to point out the immediate effect, the right here and right now, of the larger problem.

So next time you want to talk politics, talk about the weather instead.

A Lakoff Rant.

I am not a fan of George Lakoff’s writing about politics. He makes me exceedingly fussy for good reasons (the data do not support his arguments) and bad (it is poor form not to cite others who have already established entire intellectual communities on the beach you claim to have just discovered for the Good of Man).

In Sunday’s Washington Post George Lakoff argued that “political speech is…central to political action.” He is, of course, right. A respected cognitive linguist, Lakoff pointed out what scholars from a variety of other fields (to say nothing of jurists, activists, and strategists) have known for centuries. Lakoff has again done one of the things he does best – reassert that which others have already argued and still somehow manage to get it wrong.

First, what’s right: words matter.

Language is not reality but is rather an incomplete imitation of reality (almost as if it were a shadow cast by a fire in a cave). Truth itself might be nothing more than a mobile army of metaphor, metonymy and anthropomorphism (as Nietzsche argued – and unlike Lakoff, Nietzsche had the decency to write about Plato). Part of the job of language is to make sense of what we see, to put it into a form in which we can deal with it. As Burke put it in 1966, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality.” (emphasis in original). If language doesn’t capture all of reality but only selected bits of it, then “much that we take as observations about ‘reality’ be but spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms” (ibid). If that’s the case, then language itself is symbolic action, which is both the title of Burke’s book from which the above is taken and one of the shiney new insights Lakoff claims to have found.

That such is true in politics has been noted by countless scholars, but probably put most succinctly by Murray Edelman in 1985 when he wrote, “political language is political reality; there is no other so far as the meaning of events to actor and spectators is concerned.” (p. 10, emphasis in original – I should note that Edelman opens his essay by acknowledging Wittgenstein, Chomsky {something sure to make Lakoff flinch}, Ellul, Derrida, Laswell, and others).

Policies worth arguing about are big, complicated beasts, the entirety of which no one can grapple with all at once (see for example Jones and Baumgartner 2005). What we do instead is to highlight one angle or side and debate about that, or we debate about which side should be debated about. For example, is the death penalty about innocent people on death row or mass murderers? If the former, how many? If the latter, is it just? If the debate is about innocence there is no death penalty if it’s about mass murderers, there is a death penalty (Baumgartner et al 2008). The selection of the angle and how that angle gets explained largely determines the outcome of the debate. In this light, “Definition is at the heart of political battle.” (Baumgartner and Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, p.29, see also Edelman op. sit.). These definitions don’t just affect the Fox News viewing masses but all of us, as Baumgartner and Jones note: “every public policy problem is usually understood, even by the politically sophisticated, in simplified and symbolic terms.” (ibid, p.26, for experimental support see for example Schlesinger and Lau, 2005). We make policy decisions by reasoning through policy metaphors (see for example Metaphors We Think With by Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011, What Should This Fight Be Called? Metaphors of Counter Terrorism and Their Implications by Kruglanski, Crenshaw, Post and Victoroff, 2007, and many many more - many of whom cite Lakoff's early work and build on it).

In their way all of these researchers (and many many more) build on Schattschneider’s 1960 insight that “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power” (Semi-Sovereign People).

So, yah, the metaphors we choose to discuss politics and policy matter. We’ve basically known that since Aristotle.

In failing to investigate why he’s right, Lakoff gets stuff wrong. Rather than go point-by-point I will simply note that just as Lakoff ignores the deep well of academic support for his positions, he walks past the deep well of opposition to his conclusions. He notes his critics in the opening paragraph and then ignores them. That’s not a response, that’s just ignoring.

Why should people who disagree with the President be swayed by his words? They no more listen with a purely clear and open mind than the President’s supporters do (if they listen at all); we all engage in motivated reasoning (see for example this New York Times piece). Even if the people supported the President’s words and policies, public support wouldn’t easily or necessarily turn into public policy. The gap between what the people in general support and what legislators from specific legislative districts do in response to local opinion can be massive (see the endless data on tax hikes for the wealth, background checks for gun purchases, and even Lakoff’s examples around health care – to steal a line, the only unpopular part of Obamacare is Obama).

Lakoff is desperately wrong about simply using different words with people who oppose us to create policy for so many reasons. Let’s pick one: we can’t change how people who disagree with us think by using different words because most of us only to talk to people like us. Lakoff talks to people who agree with him and who tend to say “I knew it!” We don’t talk politics with people with whom we disagree, and when we do we look for ways to say “I knew it!” All of us, Lakoff included, have a world view we carry around in our heads. This view is informed by, and expressed through, metaphor. We defend this world view, fight to preserve it, hang on to it as if our lives depended on it (in this light successful persuasion is not about telling people new things but rather reminding them of what they already believe to be true - something noted by everyone from Aristotle to Umberto Eco, who in his novel The Prague Cemetary wrote "people believe what they already know" to explain how conspiracy theories thrive).

I would wager that when Lakoff watches Fox News he doesn’t do so with an open and clear mind, considering the ideas on their merits (he also manages to avoid being brainwashed by Fox News, unlike those poor souls he says the President’s supporters should save with their words – either that or he doesn’t watch Fox News at all out of fear he’ll fall under Bill O’Reilly’s siren spell, which is at least as bad). Similarly when I see a Lakoff byline my first response isn't "I wonder what new insights he has to offer that I should consider afresh with an open mind" - rather I roll my eyes and think "here we go again."

I trust that Professor Lakoff is a gifted cognitive linguist. He is not, however, a gifted political scientist, rhetorical scholar, or political strategist.

An Example of Good State of the Union Prep

Earlier today I suggested steps smart advocates should take today to prepare for Tuesday's State of the Union Address and the Republican Response.

This afternoon I got an email from a former client, the Solar Energy Industries Association, inviting me to a live online chat during the State of the Union.

The good news is that SEIA is thinking ahead to Tuesday and is finding creative ways to use the speech (at least the SOTU if not the Republican response). The bad news is that I haven't received similar emails or alerts from other organizations.

Unsolicited Advice for Advocates - Prepare Your Replies to the State of the Union and Republican Response Today

By the time they go home today the best advocates will have at least:
Drafts of six tweets responding to next week’s State of the Union Address and the Republican response;
Several draft action alerts to move to their online activist networks;
Several draft press statements in response to both speeches;
A press availability memo ready to send to key reporters on Monday (“organization CEO will be available for comment immediately following the State of the Union Address and Republican response, to schedule an interview call XXXXX…”);
A timeline for action – what goes to where and to whom when.

By the time they go home tomorrow these advocates will have final versions of everything and any needed technical steps will be taken (setting up micro-sites or action alerts, anything that involves more than just writing text).

By the time they go home Monday they will have added new drafts or tweaked existing ones based on new information (not feelings or second thoughts or on the other hands – actual information).

Then everything is given a final proof on Tuesday and the machine is turned on.

Advocates who wait to hear the speeches and respond immediately or in real-time risk making mistakes, miss the best thinking and ideas of their team, and miss opportunities to coordinate all of the tools at their disposal (tweets that drive people to online actions for example).

Advocates who wait to listen to both speeches before figuring out what to say, meet to discuss the speeches and responses next Wednesday, circulate draft responses internally, and get responses out late Wednesday afternoon – 18 hours after the speeches – will miss most media cycles and risk losing the attention of their activists. Anything that goes out Thursday is a waste of time and energy entirely.

While we don’t know exactly what will be in the President’s address or Senator Rubio’s response next Tuesday night good advocates can guess at about 80% of the likely content. And better to write 10 tweets covering several possibilities and only use five of them than to wait and rush or miss the chance to respond entirely.

For example, I think we can count on hearing about immigration from both President Obama and Senator Rubio. Advocates who care about immigration should have replies ready saying things like, “we applaud the bi-partisan commitment to immigration reform, we stand ready to work with both parties to turn promises into action – and will hold those accountable who fail to keep their promises…” My guess is that immigration advocates already have that language somewhere and it’s just a matter of tweaking it for the occasion.

Those who aren’t sure if they will make the speeches can write several versions – “we are pleased that the President and the Republican party share our commitment to…”, “we are pleased the President/Republican Party shares our commitment to, we hope the President/Republican Party join his efforts…”, “We were disappointed that neither the President nor the Republican Party thinks something that effects [whatever your best number is] is worth highlighting and we hope that a lack of a mention doesn’t equate to a lack of interest…” The actions can similarly be drafted in several versions depending on what is or is not said.

The most clever advocates will start running online campaigns today encouraging the President and Senator Rubio (and their activists to encourage the President and the Senator) to highlight their issue on Tuesday. This allows the advocate to either take credit and use that as a platform for more action if the issue happens to be mentioned, or to use the lack of attention in the address(es) as a further rallying cry.

Senator Rubio isn’t waiting to hear the State of the Union Address to draft his response. You shouldn’t either.

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