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What rhetoric can do for you – and what you can do for rhetoric

In three years in power, the coalition has produced almost no memorable line. Should we be worried?

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Listen to Mark Forsyth discuss what makes a political sound bite:
[audioboo url=”http://audioboo.fm/boos/1746136-mark-forsyth-inkyfool-on-the-importance-of-political-sound-bites”/]

In December 2011, there was a major reversal of American policy and ideology. Barack Obama told a crowd of veterans: ‘You stood up for America. Now America must stand up for you.’ A U-turn! A flop-flip! Because, if you think about it, Obama was saying the exact opposite of JFK: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

And nobody noticed. Obama was still the heir to Kennedy, because he used the same rhetoric. Technically, it’s called chiasmus.

The press and the public hate rhetoric. The convention is to describe it as ‘empty’ (just as all indictments are cutting) or ‘at odds with reality’. But few people, when pressed, can tell you anything about it. We suspect it’s there, but we don’t what it is.

Rhetoric, classically speaking, is the whole art of persuasion. Everything from your argument to your hand gestures, right up to the argumentum ad baculum or argument by stick, which involves hitting somebody until they agree with you. But in the age of the soundbite, it’s a much simpler business. Gone are the logical proofs, and the structure of an argument. What’s left are the rhetorical tricks that can be applied to one sentence, the pull-quote. Kennedy knew this. All you have to do is take the first half of the sentence and say it backwards and you’re the hero of the Free World. That’s chiasmus.

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.


Now that may seem a cheap trick. It’s easy to do and to do it is easy. Neither the symmetry of a sentence nor a sentence’s symmetry will ever fool a voter or make you vote like a fool. But you remember every one of those lines. Kennedy may have had some policies that didn’t involve Marilyn Monroe, but who remembers what they were?

It’s hard to say where Kennedy got his love of chiasmus. It may have been his father, who allegedly coined the phrase ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ But it’s more likely that he picked it up from advertising. Seven-Up’s ‘You like it, and it likes you’ or Salem Cigarettes’ ‘You can take it out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of it’. Politics and advertising have always had a lot in common. They are both despised. They are both necessary if you want to shift the public. And they both rely on the consumer not knowing the figures of rhetoric. When we see a slogan saying ‘Labour isn’t working’, we should let that phrase crawl into our heads, rather than say ‘Oh, a veridical paradox’ and wander happily on. If we saw ‘New Labour. New Danger’ as a neat iscolon, or ‘flexible friend’ as a meaningless alliteration, we wouldn’t buy or vote as much. And the state and the economy would be the worse for it.

It sometimes seems that without alliteration there would have been no 1960s. No ‘ban the Bomb’. No ‘burn your bras’. No ‘power to the people’. But the figures of rhetoric work. And chiasmus has become part of American politics. When Bush said ‘Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done,’ no one stopped to wonder how the two things differ.

A good chiasmus has become as important to a presidential campaign as the New Hampshire primary.

‘People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.’ — Bill Clinton

‘America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.’ — Jimmy Carter

‘The true test is not the speeches the president delivers; it’s if the president delivers on the speeches.’ — Hillary Clinton

‘In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.’ — Sarah Palin

And on and on and on. It’s the chiasmus that counts, because a president can count on chiasmus. British prime ministers have less of a tradition. But rhetorical figures are still around. Who can forget Margaret Thatcher telling the Commons ‘No. No. No’? Or Thatcher’s heir, Mr Blair, telling the Commons ‘Weak. Weak. Weak’? Or ‘Education. Education. Education’ delivered to the party conference a mere 12 weeks earlier? Tony Blair knew what he was doing. For the politically minded, it’s depressing that all that is remembered of a prime minister can be a simple trick, one phrase that followed a rule.

More depressing still is that in the previous prime ministerial tradition of diacope, the prime ministers never used it. Diacope is when a repetition is split by another word. It pretty much guarantees a memorable line: ‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘O Captain, my Captain’, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’, ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Callaghan’s most famous line is a Sun headline taken, ultimately, from The Day of the Jackal. And there is no record of Macmillan ever saying his most famous quotation before an unsourced anecdote in the Guardian in the 1980s. Still, style will always triumph over substance, whether you have it or not.

The same goes for John Major’s trademark litotes. Litotes is asserting something by denying its opposite. ‘It’s not unusual,’ as Tom Jones put it, and ‘not inconsiderable’ as John Major never did. The phrase was thought up by Private Eye. But litotes seemed to fit his character. None of the bare assertions of Thatcher, just the tortured double-negatives of a man who barely had a majority.

Rhetoric is the blood and bones of politics. If you have no style, you’ll never put your substance into action. So what of the present day? In three years in power, the coalition has produced almost no memorable line. Even the alliteration of ‘Hug a hoodie’ was from a headline in the News of the World. This is, depressingly, deliberate. A former Tory speechwriter told me that whenever he wrote something catchy, it was torn up. ‘Part of this government’s overcompensation for the faults of the last lot is that they don’t do so much “Education, education, education” as Labour. It’s a very obvious way of trying to signal that we’re not trying to spin like the last lot. And that of course is a kind of spin.’

But… but… that’s looking at it the wrong way. Roll on the anaphora, the polyptoton and the tricolons! Policies pass. Coalitions crack. Governments go. You might as well leave us some good lines.

Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the perfect English phrase.

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