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.