Home > Uncategorized > Logos, Ethos, and Cross-Aisle Political Understanding

Logos, Ethos, and Cross-Aisle Political Understanding

(NB: This post is about politics and rhetoric, not social computing or education.)

I understand that parts of the movie Game Change paint a sympathetic portrait of Sarah Palin, but the clip they showed at my college reunion made her look like a fool.  The author of the book the movie is based on, classmate Mark Halperin, was interviewed on stage at our class talent show, and the result was hilarious (though smug). Mark polled the audience: how many people think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president?  Three lonely, brave souls raised their hands.  One of those souls, Robert Miller, then walked out, disgusted. Robert later posted to our class Facebook group that he felt “mugged” by the experience.

I walked away from this experience wondering if some of my fellow liberals understand why a political candidate like Sarah Palin appeals to so many people.  I have a conjecture about the nature of the gap.  Rhetoricians talk about logos (appeal to reason), ethos (appeal to credibility), pathos (appeal to emotion), and kairos (timeliness).  In the lively (and gracious) Facebook debate that followed this incident, talent show host Peter Sagal asked if this all had something to do with the role of pathos in politics. I think he’s on the right track, but the key is actually the distinction between logos and ethos.  Liberals tend to privilege reason, and conservatives tend to privilege credibility.

My dental hygienist once told me, “I just love Sarah Palin!  She’s so real!”  On election day in November 2004, one of my PhD students stayed home all day to agonize over who to vote for. We were in the middle of a tight deadline, but he took a whole day to brood over it.  I asked him what he was thinking, and he said “Well, George Bush feels like a regular guy. Someone you could have a beer with.”  He ultimately voted for John Kerry, but it was painful for him to pull the lever for someone he saw as a smug, condescending elitist.  These are just anecdotes, not data, but they certainly got me thinking.

When you think about it, privileging ethos isn’t crazy at all. No one really knows what they’re doing when you come down to it, do they? Unanticipated consequences run amok in the wake of the most carefully researched plan. So isn’t what kind of a person you are the important thing?  And isn’t it fair to say that folks who smugly think they’re better than everyone else may not be in touch with what’s important to real people?  I’m an unrepentant logos person myself–I want someone with a logical answer for why they’re qualified for example to lead US foreign policy. But I think I am beginning to understand the other view, and would like to come to understand it better.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. May 31, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    I guess one advantage of living in the south is more exposure to diverse points of view.

    You might like Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind which tries to parse out the differing innate dimensions of morality and show how conservatives and liberals differ…he’s also got a good TED talk somewhere. I think according to him neither side really has a better claim on reason, they are just pursuing different sets of values.

  2. Ali Rogers
    May 31, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    But how — especially in these days of big-money marketing — does one measure “ethos”?

    Sarah Palin famously spent $150,000 on her clothing. Am I as a voter to interpret that negatively as “Palin’s profligate, I can’t trust her with a budget?” or negatively as “Palin’s narcissistic, I don’t trust her to move away from her obsession with self-presentation to listen to others?” or positively as “Palin is well-versed in the codes of modern media presentation, and handles the language of television adroitly?” or positively as “Palin is a time-pressed executive, so she needs a lot of clothing to be have the right wardrobe ready for any situation?”

    Appeals to logos are much easier to quantify, if you will. I believe X, that candidate believes Y, and then I can measure the degree of overlap between X and Y and work from there.

    • May 31, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      I don’t think the clothing thing went over well with any side of the spectrum. 🙂

    • Ozarkhomesteader
      June 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      I am reminded, Ali, of the polls that showed that 80% of voters disagreed with the future President Bush II’s policies, but they voted for him because they “trusted” him. Trusted him to do what? Exactly what they didn’t want! If I had more time, I’d check polling history to see if Americans once voted more as you and I do, based on logos. I cannot believe that our country survived for well over two centuries with such a high percentage of ethos.

  3. Rodney T Walker
    May 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Great post Amy!

    I think I lean more towards your side of the spectrum, but I do know that a lot of people want a candidate they can relate to or one that makes them feel “comfortable” (what you would probably call pathos). I’ve met enough people in my life to know there are plenty of great, smart people who I wouldn’t want leading a high school SGA.

    We all want someone who is either like us or appeals to us. Someone who seems to share our morals/values, someone who cares about the things we care about, etc. Someone who seems to “get it”, and someone who we feel will make all the right decisions when that time comes.

    For me, I want a POTUS who is better than me. I want this person to be smarter, more thoughtful, have experienced more, and overall someone who understands how much responsibility that role entails. I tell everyone that at that level, almost nothing is easy. If it were easy, it would’ve been done already! I think lots of times it’s not even having to make a difficult decision – it’s having to choose between 2 (or more) equally bad choices. At that time, I want someone who can think long-term, consider all the positives and negatives, definitely consider the real-world impact this will have on people (there will always be winners and losers), make that choice, then be willing to explain it and stand behind it.

    But that’s just me!

  4. May 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Great post Amy! Just one minor typo I wanted to alert you to. I never knew that Al Gore was running for President in 2004. 🙂

    • May 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Thanks Mike! I meant Kerry. I fixed it. I think the typo is telling–Gore is a better archetype for smug liberal. 🙂

  5. June 17, 2012 at 11:02 am

    I wonder what it is about a legislator’s role that people want to decide their choice based on who they’d want to have a beer with. While picking a doctor or a lawyer, we’d pick based on who we thought was the most qualified person, one with the most relevant past experience, one who would come up with the best plan of treatment, or defense (I hope?), without regard to whether she or he is or is not “like us”. Wonder why the differential application of appeal to logos versus pathos.

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