Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash / modifiedPhoto by Markus Spiske on Unsplash / modifiedThis article is adapted from the keynote presentation at the conference of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, Austin, Texas, February 15, 2019. 

Many an American feels troubled these days. There is widespread recognition that our civic and political culture has changed in both its norms and its practices. Civility and community, deliberation and debate, facts and fallacies, participation and protest—none of these concepts means what it used to, and sometimes it is not clear what they mean at all. There is widespread concern about the erosion of civil discourse, the coarsening of the public square, the unhealthy condition of our public rhetoric. Some date this change to the election of President Trump; others find the starting point in the systematic obstruction of President Obama’s agenda by his political opponents, or in the warfare between the second President Bush and his political opponents, or in the impeachment of President Clinton, or the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich, or in the intensity of the campaign to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or to other starting points as well. The significance of selecting a point of origin is mainly that it allows one to claim that the other side started it.

Both of our major political parties have been involved in this assault on our civic culture—though, I must say, not at all equally. Nor does it seem much comfort to be told that we have had times like this before, such as the late 1880s and early 1890s when the tariff was as much of a litmus test as the border wall is today, or the years immediately before the Civil War. It is small comfort to know that in our time we have not witnessed fist fights or challenges to a duel on the floor of the House of Representatives, nor the beating of a U.S. Senator with a cane as he sat at his desk franking the outgoing mail. Something very serious is happening here, and while I focus on the United States, we should acknowledge at the outset that comparable developments are taking place in democratic societies in other nations of the world. Judging from the titles of recent books and magazine articles, the very survival of democracy is in peril.

What is going on here? What does it have to do with rhetoric? And what if anything can we do about it?


Democracy is a system of government in which power is diffused and the people ultimately are sovereign. But human beings are fallible—it is not given to us to know for sure about matters that require judgment, interpretation, or prediction. This means that we must allow for the possibility of revision or correction of our collective decisions. We accomplish this through the posture that Douglas Ehninger called “restrained partisanship.” We have certain values or commitments, we believe that we are right, and we wish to convince others to adopt our views even if it means changing their own. But we are not willing to manipulate or to coerce them in order to produce that result. We value their assent only on the condition that it is freely given, based on the merits of our argument. We do this not so much because we are nice people, although that may also be true, but because we will have more confidence that our view is right if it is validated through the uncoerced acceptance of another. We are so interested in gaining this validation that we are willing to open ourselves to the possibility that we will be convinced instead and will need to abandon the position we initially thought was right. That is the essence of the rhetorical situation as understood by argumentation theorists, and is the first key norm.

If democracy is built on the principle of human fallibility and the possibility of correction, then our individual interactions have an important social consequence: they enact a culture in which nothing is settled definitively for all time without the possibility of re-examination. Decisions will be made, to be sure. After all, part of the rhetorical predicament is the need to act in the face of incomplete information. They are the best decisions that can be made in the moment, based on the available evidence and judgment, but they are always open to revision. This is precisely why many “big questions” never get settled but are discussed interminably in different mutations: questions like the relationship between the individual and the state, the priority of individualism or communitarianism, the tension between liberty and equality, the merits of capitalism and socialism, the relative weight of our rights and responsibilities, and so on. The phrase that captures the perennially open nature of these questions is to say that there are “no final victories.” Carrying on the continuing conversation is an expression of human dignity precisely because everyone knows that losers today may be winners tomorrow. Even questions that we think are settled finally can rear their head in unexpected places. There is no better example I can think of than the idea of states’ rights, seemingly discredited as a cover for racism but resurfacing in recent years on matters ranging from protection of gun rights to the availability of Medicaid.

A clear implication of what I have been saying is that a functioning democracy depends on rhetorical skill. The essentially contested concepts are the topoi of public life. They are available for advocates to appeal to and to reason from. What is carrying the public dialogue forward if not exercising the faculty of determining the available means of persuasion in the given case? But the availability of the topoi depends on the assumption that there are no final victories.

One way to understand our current predicament is to say that many are now conducting our public dialogue as if they expected final victory. Whether this is because the financial cost of politics has risen so much, or because we are in a period of sharp polarization, or because our current leaders lack rhetorical sensitivity, or whatever the reason, the expectation of a final victory—settling a question once and for all—transforms the political culture.

The recent partial government shutdown may not be the best example, but it is a convenient one. In what otherwise would have been a garden-variety dispute about funding priorities, the president was adamant that he would approve no final budget that did not include $5.7 Billion in funding for a wall on the southern border. Democrats were equally intransigent that they were not going to “do a wall.” The Speaker of the House raised the stakes by calling a wall “immoral.” The positions were utterly incompatible and each side said it would not yield. Each was in search of final victory on the issue. These were not initial negotiating moves but final, bottom-line commitments. A five-week partial shutdown of the government was the result. In the end, the president, chastened by adverse polls and the threat of defections from his own party, agreed to a short-term solution that reopened the government for a three-week period, ending today. On Tuesday he hinted that he would not precipitate another shutdown so probably will agree to a deal less attractive than the one he was offered in December, while threatening an arguably unconstitutional use of the power to declare a national emergency to still find the funding for the wall. Meanwhile, Congress managed to put together a compromise by taking up such questions as “what counts as a wall?” “who decides how a given section of the border will be treated?” and “what is the proper level of funding for border security?” These questions show more rhetorical sensitivity and open the possibility for outcomes that will permit mutual face-saving and reinstate the assumption of “no final victories.” But when our political system lurches from one manufactured crisis to another, seeking a final victory until someone blinks at the last moment, there is serious cost, financial and otherwise, to public faith in democracy and its ability to function, and greater skepticism about the ability of rhetoric to inspire and manage public deliberation in ways that enhance people’s dignity and sense of personhood.


When I speak of deliberation, I am identifying the second pillar of a healthy political and rhetorical culture. To be sure, there are moments of true emergency when it is an unaffordable luxury, such as when a nation is attacked or war is declared. In those moments, action is required but there is no time for public debate about what form it should take. It is also true that parties do not always have an incentive to deliberate, especially the party that stands to prevail if nothing gets done. And political actors low in residual power may need to goad their opponents into deliberation by staging protest marches or rallies, creating a public disturbance or inconvenience, or creating an embarrassing situation that can be avoided by entering into deliberation. But properly executed, these are means toward the goal of deliberation, not alternatives to it.

What do we mean by deliberation? I use the term to refer to public discussion aimed at reaching a collective decision about what should be done. It stands in contrast to the simple amassing of individual preferences that may be instantly arrived at and are not necessarily grounded in reflective judgment. When we use the term “public opinion,” it often carries the latter meaning: the simple aggregation of individual preferences, however well or poorly grounded. That is a form of democratic expression, of course, but it may be nothing more than whim or caprice and it might be easily subject to manipulation. The traditional meaning of “public opinion,” however, was much different. It referred to the collective judgment of the polis formed and strengthened through public discussion. It was this sense that Abraham Lincoln referred to when he said during his first debate with Stephen A. Douglas, “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing will fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

Deliberation takes place through the exchange of claims supported by reasons, and this exchange tests the strength of the claims and establishes the soundness of the reasons. In a productive discussion, the quality of the supports strengthens the credibility of the claim. It is important that all parties accept the accuracy and legitimacy of those underlying supports if they are potentially to be able to reason together to the same conclusion. Moreover, if a person’s claim is doubted or challenged, the person assumes an obligation to defend it, either by rehabilitating the underlying support or proffering other support that might find acceptance.

Support for claims consists primarily of facts and judgments. Facts are statements about the external world that are generally accepted and can be verified by others. A person is not entitled to his or her own facts. That someone here or there denies a fact does not change the fact or reduce the hold it ought to have on people. Nor does the circumstance that many facts require interpretation deny the authority of the fact itself. To say that facts don’t matter is to deny the possibility of deliberation, reducing it to nothing more than the shrill, strident repetition of assertion and denial, with no grounds for accepting a factual claim other than who speaks loudest or amasses the most supporters. To say that we live in a “post-truth” or “post-fact” environment is to say that deliberation is impossible.

Even more care must be taken with respect to judgments, because they cannot be independently verified but ultimately rest on the ethos of the people who make them. It does not follow that all judgments are of equal value. Factors such as a person’s training and professional expertise, his or her track record, the consistency of his or her judgments with those of other respected persons, the degree to which the person’s judgment is corroborated by available factual evidence, and other such factors will lead those engaged in deliberation to prefer some judgments over others. The fact that a contrary judgment always can be found does not mean that there is an equivalence between competing judgments or that judgments don’t matter. To think otherwise, once again, is to deny the possibility of deliberation.

Just as important as facts and judgments are the inferences that link them to the claims we put forth for the acceptance of others. Facts and judgments do not speak for themselves; they must be shown to count as reasons for a claim. Unlike formal logic or mathematics, inferences in rhetorical reasoning are validated not by their form but by their experience in use. We need to be concerned less about the undistributed middle term and affirming the consequent (though they remain appropriate tests of certain inferences) than we are with overgeneralization, ignored reservations, or equivocal use of language. One virtue of a rhetorical culture in which claims can be scrutinized by interlocutors is that it creates the conditions in which inferential errors can be spotted and corrected. Otherwise they might escape detection, and when people get used to taking for granted that any inference is reasonable and any claim legitimate, then, again, facts and judgments cease to matter. We then have no reason to think that your facts are any better than my “alternative facts.” It then becomes easier for rhetoric, now addressed in the first place to like-minded listeners, to reinforce what they already believe while discrediting the concerns of those who are skeptical. Deliberation then is replaced with the echo chamber, intensifying the polarization and cultural fragmentation it represents.


Besides dignity and deliberation, a healthy rhetorical culture is characterized by decorum, a sense that what is said is fitting for the occasion and situation. This is not a matter of dainty politeness or even rules of civility; much less is it reducible to the epithet “political correctness.” It consists of often quotidian behavior and expression that enact our assumption that basic norms are shared, showing our respect for the continuity of rhetorical exchange itself. What counts as decorous rhetoric varies with the situation. The assertion that the president of the United States is lying might be indecorous when shouted by a Member of Congress in the midst of a nationally televised presidential speech yet be perfectly appropriate when shouted by a citizen watching that speech on television in a neighborhood bar.

The problem with indecorous rhetoric—with name-calling and personal abuse, in particular—is that it chills the public dialogue by driving away people who have a contribution to make. The public sphere is no longer open to all without preconditions if some who have something to say are driven away by witnessing ugliness, defamation, or abuse, even if directed at others. The harm is not so much to the targets (they usually have thick skins and can take it) but to the audience for the exchange, who may be turned off or driven away by the unpleasantness of it all, leading them to say “a plague on all your houses,” with a net loss to the culture.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that attacking another’s character or ethos is always inappropriate. Nor am I denying the fact that politeness and civility can be a refuge for the privileged, insulating them from deserved challenge and maintaining the status quo. Sometimes, in fact, character is precisely what is at issue – when a person lies, confuses public policy with private gain, has questionable standards of morality, or behaves inconsistently with the values the person espouses, for example. Then character is the proper subject for evaluative claims supported by reasons based in facts and judgments. But the abusive use of the ad hominem argument, substituting unsupported accusations, a pejorative nickname, or a label such as “racist” or “socialist” for developed argument degrades the public sphere. And it is a rhetorical failure, insofar as rhetoric is the instrument of degradation.


Certainly, there are other characteristics of a healthy rhetorical culture. One is that it is respectful of complexity, neither engaging in oversimplification nor resorting to obfuscation but recognizing that the topoi of public life are often difficult and complicated. Another is that it balances respect for difference, recognizing and valorizing diversity of participation, with respect for community and solidarity, which enable people, with their differences, to reach for common goals and to imagine what Richard Weaver called “better versions of themselves.” And another is respect for reasonableness itself, occupying as it does the middle ground between the logically necessary and the purely arbitrary. But I don’t want to be too greedy. If we could say that we have strengthened our respect for human dignity, deliberation, and decorum, then I believe that our rhetorical culture would be in good shape.

Instead, however, I think it is demonstrably the case that in each of these respects our rhetorical culture has decayed over the past two years. This judgment seems so obvious, and to lie close enough beneath the surface of what I’ve said, that it is hardly necessary to cite examples, but they range from name-calling one’s opponents to disregarding whether one’s own claims are true or false, to maintaining maximum negotiating positions and stubbornly refusing to compromise in the face of intractable opposition, to unfairly allocating praise or blame for desirable or undesirable outcomes. There is room for legitimate disagreement about whether the current fraying of rhetorical culture is caused primarily by President Trump’s unconventional rhetorical stances or by the desperate rhetoric adopted by some who cannot abide him, but we need not settle that question. It is also true that there are encouraging signs, such as the political mobilization of millennials and the high turnout in the 2018 midterm elections. But these notes of encouragement do not strike me as strong or persistent enough to counter the decay I have described. Nor do I think it is enough just to cite the president’s rhetorical flaws or to try to beat him at his own game. That usually fails. What more can we do, especially we who in both our role as academics and our role as citizens, are concerned with the health of the American rhetorical culture?


Rhetorical scholars have two great assets to bring to the table. One, by training and experience we are qualified to analyze and assess rhetoric, understood broadly as the many ways in which a culture expresses its values and beliefs and individuals seek to relate to and influence others. It is an essential cultural force and we may know it better than most. And two, we are teachers, since from antiquity our field has been a teaching tradition, in which principles and skills are inculcated in practice. We draw upon these assets in our classrooms daily, and between introductory courses in composition and public speaking, we probably teach more students than any other discipline.

We should be able to translate our work into terms that will be meaningful and compelling to a general public audience, overcoming the widespread belief that there is nothing that can be done about the disturbing trends we notice. Can we, for example, craft a statement that will make the need for a healthy rhetorical culture compelling to concerned citizens who are not specialists in rhetoric, if they were to read the statement in a medium like a white paper, an op-ed, an article in a general-interest publication, or a full-page ad in the New York Times? For another example, since we are teachers, can we design materials that would facilitate teaching about the health of rhetorical culture, whether in the academy or beyond?

To be sure, there already are several efforts along these lines. Centers with titles like Communication and Civic Engagement, Democratic Deliberation, and Speaking Center are being established across the country. Curricula in rhetorical studies are being revised to emphasize connections between rhetoric and public or civic culture. Rhetorical scholars serve as consultants to community-service and decision-making organizations. And even settings like this allow people like me to pontificate about the importance of this mission. Surely some of these initiatives will bear fruit.

If we think that there is too big a gap between what may go on in our classrooms and what occurs in the public sphere, we may be selling ourselves short. If we have our work cut out for us, we also have guidance from our tradition about what to do and how to do it.


Few if any of the figures in our various rhetorical traditions better combine the notion of rhetoric as theory with the idea of rhetoric as pedagogy than the first-century Spanish and Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilian. His major work was Institutio oratoria (Education of the Orator), published in the year 95. It not only encapsulates the principles of Roman rhetoric, many of which were really category systems tracing to Cicero, but also articulates the Roman system of education in which rhetoric was so central. For Quintilian, rhetoric was a theory of education, and to learn anything else was also, in the course of doing so, to learn rhetoric. His system of education combined teaching by precept and example, learning by imitation and invention.

The twelfth and final book of the Institutio describes the ideal orator as “the good man, speaking well.” While Quintilian uses the terms “orator” and “speaking,” he actually emphasizes the interrelation of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. His argument was that truly to dedicate oneself to rhetorical effectiveness was also, necessarily, to dedicate oneself to moral goodness, because one who helps to shape the community (through persuasion) is thereby responsible for its welfare. Rhetoric implies an ethic.

We generally do not think that way today. We are more likely to follow the Aristotelian tradition that rhetoric is a techne, a skill that can be learned and applied for good or ill. We are probably more likely to diagnose the problem of our culture as not having enough good people rather than having people who do not speak well.

But what if we did follow Quintilian? Suppose we were to imagine that learning rhetoric also entailed learning virtues that helped us to define “good people.” When Protagoras wrote that “man is the measure of all things,” we can see that not as an expression of arrogance but as an acknowledgment of humility. On so many topics, we human beings, imperfect and fallible, are the only measure we have, and that realization should induce both personal humility and respect for the other, with the bestowal on the other of personhood and dignity to match that which we claim for ourselves. When we read Aristotle that the end of rhetoric is judgment, that should remind us that there are so many matters on which certainty eludes us and yet we must act. We should see the exercise of judgment as one of the most perilous and yet most exalted things we are called upon to do. When we read Whately or others on the burden of proof, we are reminded of how weighty a matter it is to influence another person and how important it is to hold ourselves to our responsibilities to justify the claims we make on others. And closer to our own time, when we read Douglas Ehninger’ s celebration of “restrained partisanship,” we recognize that our fallibility and limitations, though real, cannot prevent us from the human task of acting in the world, but rather should shape the manner in which we act.

Suppose we were to inculcate attitudes like these through methods of rhetorical pedagogy; would we not produce good people speaking well? Suppose we acted on our oft-expressed critical belief that rhetoric is involved in all ways of knowing; would we not go a long way toward strengthening our public culture in all its manifestations? Yes, it will take a long time; and yes, there will be fits and starts along the way. But the alternative is to resign ourselves to seeing today’s political culture as the new normal and dismissing the many gifted rhetors of the past as aberrations. We must instead build upon and extend the best of our traditions that we celebrate in gatherings such as this. That is ultimately the means for the citizenry to raise its expectations and thereby to rehabilitate our unhealthy political culture.


  • David Zarefsky is Owen L. Coon Professor Emeritus of Argumentation and Debate, and Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies, at Northwestern University, where he served as Dean of the School of Speech from 1988 through June 2000. Dr. Zarefsky’s research and teaching are in the areas of rhetorical history and criticism, argumentation and debate, and forensics. He is the author, co-author, or editor of nine books and the author of more than 100 articles in books and professional journals. Two of his books have won the National Communication Association’s (NCA) Winans-Wichelns Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address: President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History (University of Alabama Press, 1986) and Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate (University of Chicago Press, 1990). A former NCA President, Dr. Zarefsky was named in 1994 to the ranks of NCA Distinguished Scholars and in 2015 he was named the Douglas Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar. He is also a former President of the Rhetoric Society of America.