Situating Speech: A Rhetorical Approach to Political Strategy



Ideas are increasingly acknowledged as factors in explaining political behaviour. But often they are treated as inert resources rather than dynamic instances of action in themselves. The latter, I propose, requires reflection on the character of speech – as the medium of ideas – in responding to and refiguring a prevailing situation. I undertake such reflection by setting out a rhetorical approach to political strategy. Building upon ‘interpretive’ advances in political science I shift the focus from stable cognitive frames to the dynamics of argumentation where ideas work expressively. I then explore the rhetorical aspect of strategising with attention to the way speech serves to orient audiences by creatively re-appropriating a situation. That approach is shown to be consistent with a ‘dialectical’ political sociology that emphasises the interaction of structure and agency. Finally, I sketch a method for undertaking rhetorical analysis and indicate how it might be applied to a concrete example.

Politics is often understood, at least in principle, as a moment for agency. When political actors act, they do so on the basis of independently held beliefs, ideas and values, which they seek to realise. Yet the sheer ubiquity and enormous diversity of such phenomena makes it difficult to discern accurately how they contribute to action. Political science, therefore, has traditionally diminished the explanatory role attributed to ‘ideational’ factors in favour of interests or rational utility (Hay, 2002, pp. 194–202). Even approaches that acknowledge the role of ‘culture’, ‘ideology’ or ‘discourse’ in politics often do so with a noticeably structural accent, emphasising the internal coherence of ideas as resources for action (see Howarth, 2000). The specificity of ideas to particular circumstances is neglected and agency seems somewhat reduced.

In this article, I draw upon and develop the insights of recent work in ‘rhetorical political analysis’ to account for the way, through the medium of speech, that ideas are themselves instances of action (see Finlayson, 2004; 2007; Finlayson and Martin, 2008). Rhetorical analysis underscores the situated nature of ideas, that is, their presence in speech and argument delivered at, and in response to, specific times and places. Conceived rhetorically, ideas emerge out of particular controversies and function expressively, as symbols charged to influence the wider environment. Rhetorical analysis explores how that force is assembled in the content of arguments by, for example, identifying premises and conclusions, the use of generic styles of address, figures of speech or aphorisms.

A rhetorical approach evades the lingering structuralism of other approaches by attending to the contingency of ideas, that is, their fabrication and inflection for particular contexts, audiences and purposes. Think, for instance, of Tony Blair's programme of ‘modernisation’ in the 1990s, which spoke to – and conjoined – contrasting aspirations for governmental change both in the Labour Party and among a broader, middle-income public (see Blair, 1999). Moreover, a rhetorical approach can also inquire into how time and space are inflected within argument itself so as to persuade audiences by reorienting them towards their situations. Thus Blair's rhetoric invited his audiences to perceive modernisation as the timely adaptation to a perpetually changing world, yet also securely anchored to enduring ‘Labour values’ such as ‘progress’ and ‘justice’. That inventive re-figuration of context, I claim, is key to the persuasiveness of a discourse. Political actors act when seeking to shape their circumstances through speech and argument such that their judgements appear ‘appropriate’ to the moment.

The approach set out below builds upon ‘interpretive’ incursions into political science, but it also departs from them in notable ways. As I indicate in the first part, interpretive inquiry insists that human subjects and their ideas are themselves part of the action under analysis (see Bevir and Rhodes, 2003; Blyth, 1997; Gofas and Hay, 2010). By contrast with conceptions of a predictive science of political behaviour, interpretivism responds to the recognised ‘need for a political analysis rather more attuned and sensitive to ideational, perceptual and discursive factors’ (Hay, 2002, p. 214). Yet against a tendency among interpretivists to treat ideas and beliefs as stable cognitive frames or normative dispositions – rather like tinted spectacles colouring the way we receive information – a rhetorical approach also understands ideas as akin to projectiles, moving outwards to varying degrees, purposefully displacing the context around them. Thus ‘modernisation’ in Blair's rhetoric framed his narrative of Labour's project but it also weakened his opponents' accusations that the party sought to revive discredited policies and challenged his critics to demonstrate their own modern credentials.

As I explain in the second part, this expressive conception of ideas invites us to conceive of speech as the strategic re-appropriation of a situation. Effective rhetoric, I claim, orients its audience at the intersection of overlapping times and spaces by re-figuring the situation. Such a view is compatible with ‘dialectical’ accounts of structure and agency that emphasise the negotiation of constraints and opportunities, but with a greater focus on actors than institutions. Rhetorical analysis explores the ‘agency’ dimension of that dialectic by identifying the argumentative moves employed by speakers to position their audiences. This discussion leads directly on to the formulation of a methodological schema for conducting a rhetorical analysis of strategy drawing upon rhetorical categories. I complete the latter discussion with a brief reflection on the example of President J. F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address of 1961.

The Force of Ideas: From Spectacles to Projectiles

Ideas enter into politics in a myriad of different ways: as preferences and attitudes shaping voters' choices; as party ideologies and doctrinal statements; as practical theories and paradigmatic policy frames; as ‘live’ public debate in deliberative chambers; as official statements, public addresses or remarks on contingent events; in political interviews, campaign advertisements and, more recently, in ‘blogs’ and tweets. Such variety precludes any simple explanation of the role ideas play in politics. Variations in the form, intensity and breadth of impact make a full appreciation of the role of ideas difficult to gauge.

Partly because of this complexity, ideas have often been ignored in political science, which, under the sway of positivism, has reduced human agency to narrow psychological operations such as rationally calculating utility or following routinised behavioural patterns (for a discussion, see Hay, 2002, ch. 6). More recently, however, scholars have incorporated insights from disciplines sensitive to the varied perspectives individuals themselves bring to the world, such as cultural anthropology or cognitive psychology. These invite a richer understanding of the way behaviour is mediated by subjective frameworks, which the analyst must also interpret if behaviour is to be understood. They provide a nuanced picture of the varied attitudes and values actors bring to political problems and their judgements of how to act.

Thus it is now increasingly common to find political scientists employing terms such as the ‘ideational’ or the ‘discursive’ to denote a field of subjectivity where individuals and groups construct their own relationship to the world. For instance, Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes favour what they call a ‘narrative’ form of explanation that reconstructs the ‘stories’ agents tell to account for how they act (Bevir and Rhodes, 2003, p. 5, p. 20, p. 26). Here we are invited to understand behaviour by reference to the complex ‘webs of belief’ and ideological ‘traditions’ upon which individuals draw to frame their encounters. In the face of what are called ‘dilemmas’, the authors explain, narratives are transformed as they meet new circumstances. Alternatively, Vivien Schmidt champions an all-inclusive approach she calls ‘discursive institutionalism’ which, like Bevir and Rhodes, identifies the role of ideas and values in making institutions work (see Schmidt, 2008; 2010). She highlights a distinction between ‘background ideational abilities’, by means of which institutional practices are reproduced, and ‘foreground discursive abilities’ that permit agents to ‘communicate’ and ‘coordinate’ with other agents so as to innovate and extend institutions through the deployment of ideas.

These approaches have begun to incorporate subjectivity into the assessment of political and institutional change. They do so with considerable sophistication and with some appreciation of the dynamics of ideas as they shift from routine habits to active exchanges where new beliefs are formulated, articulated with other ideas and put into circulation. At the same time, however, the default position of such approaches has been to treat ideas as relatively stable cognitive frames by means of which actors follow rules (see Carstensen, 2011). Although Bevir, Rhodes and Schmidt refer to moments when new frames are formulated, the assumption is that, rather like the institutions they seek to interpret, ideas function primarily as coherent and stable outlooks that determine a consistent pattern of behaviour.

Another approach – one that captures more fully the dynamic aspect of ideas – can be found in rhetorical approaches to discourse that build upon the insights of interpretivism. The central premise of rhetoric, as social psychologist Michael Billig claims, is that ‘our private thoughts have the structure of public arguments’ (Billig, 1991, p. 48). That is to say, human thinking is more like public deliberation than the ‘cognitive arranging and cataloguing of information according to procedural rules’ underscored by cognitive psychology (Billig, 1991, p. 41). Accordingly, adopting attitudes, endorsing theories or expressing opinions and beliefs is less like putting on mental spectacles and more like positioning ourselves within a controversy: by taking sides, adopting reasons, repressing alternatives and identifying antagonists (Billig, 1991, p. 43). To ‘believe something’, Alan Finlayson (2007, p. 551) argues, ‘is to accept the (many kinds of) reasons that can be presented for so believing it’. That, I suggest, implies that we also treat ideas as projectiles with ‘expressive’ qualities of force and direction as well as settled narrative frames. To hold ideas, from that perspective, is not merely to perceive the world in a particular way but to participate in a more or less hidden dispute. Viewed rhetorically, the world of subjectivity is less the smooth space of formulated beliefs and narratives and more a world contoured by uneven and constantly moving forces.

In assessing ideas and ideologies, Billig and Finlayson emphasise this outward activity of argumentation where reasons and the conclusions they support are proffered and contested. That is, they underscore the point that ideas are given force and direction in processes of public argumentation. Private attitudes and beliefs represent secondary outcomes in a wider, ongoing process where ideas are recruited to enhance some arguments and to diminish others. To interpret that process involves a change of emphasis, switching focus from more or less stable and structured outlooks (coherent beliefs, attitudes and discourses, etc.) – which appear to give actors and their institutions an enduring solidity – to argumentative practices that recharge, articulate and recirculate ideas (see Fairclough and Fairclough, 2012). Although that process is acknowledged by existing interpretive and discursive approaches, it is often set apart as one possibility in an otherwise stable and consistent set of institutional conditions. Yet revising narratives in the face of dilemmas (Bevir and Rhodes) or ‘coordinating’ with other discourses (Schmidt) necessarily involves choices and exclusions that have to be argumentatively expounded and defended.

By contrast, a rhetorical perspective interprets the way ideas are given charge in argumentative processes that unsettle, transform or simply reaffirm established narratives, often when their coherence might be in doubt. Rhetorical argument therefore admits of various degrees of intensity and can be said to mediate the extent to which ideas remain in settled frames or approximate forceful projectiles that shift the terms of debate. Thus we find many uncontroversial forms of rhetoric that re-inscribe new ideas or events in accepted frameworks – the ritual of the Queen's Speech in parliament or the rousing of the party faithful at conference, for example – as well as more combative, declamatory forms of speech aimed at smashing accepted frames and projecting new ways of thinking and acting – the Rev. Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, for example, or President G. W. Bush's invocation of ‘an axis of evil’. In most cases, however, rhetoric combines continuity with provocation, endorsing established ideas while simultaneously advancing new ones. It falls to the analyst to interpret the degree to which this is accomplished and with what consequences.

But how is that interpretive process undertaken? Rhetoric was originally conceived as the art of persuasive communication or, in Aristotle's more precise terms, as ‘the power to observe the persuasiveness of which any particular matter admits’ (see Aristotle, 1991, p. 74). Here ‘persuasion’ entails forging a relationship between speaker and audience so as to shape the latter's judgement around an issue and not merely to convey information. The long tradition of rhetorical study – originating in works by Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and progressively extended from the Renaissance up to the present (see Herrick, 2005) – has developed a range of classifications for the linguistic and performative techniques involved in crafting that relationship, often with a view to their subtle psychological effects. These help disassemble the various components, manoeuvres and layers of persuasive discourse designed to incite responses. Rhetoricians traditionally seek the ‘means of persuasion’ by locating the argumentative forms of appeal (to reason, emotion or character), the ordering of the components of a discourse, the style of language and figures, and any peculiarities of delivery (Lanham, 1991; Leith, 2011). Unlike linguistics and other approaches to discourse, rhetoric is not strictly about language: it describes a composite, multilayered performance embodied in communication. A speaker mobilises language and emotion, personal authority, bodily gestures and audible voice to make an argument work. These elements combine to give ideas a force that is often both affective and rational, and impressed upon audiences to shape their judgements on any specific matter (see Charteris-Black, 2005; Clark, 2011; Cockcroft and Cockcroft, 2005).

Of course, the term ‘rhetoric’ has something of an equivocal reputation that has limited its appeal for scholars of politics. On the one hand, it is routinely disparaged as the distracting surface of political discourse, the superficial immediacy of utterances in the day-to-day competition for advantage, but not a useful guide to the deeper interests or intentions at work. This is what is regularly dismissed as ‘mere rhetoric’. On the other hand, examples of political speech come to acquire iconic status in a virtual pantheon of significant utterances: what are often referred to as ‘great speeches of our time’ (see, for example, Safire, 2004). The latter category typically includes the oratory of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and other such eloquent communicators.

Thus rhetoric tends either to be dismissed as having no genuine impact at all or lauded for having a self-evident, transformative effect.1 A rhetorical analysis, however, needs to explain the impact, or not, of speech and argument rather than presuppose it one way or another. To do so, I claim in the next section, requires a conceptualisation of the ways that arguments are deployed in relation to a prevailing situation.

Rhetorical Strategy

‘Rhetorical strategy’ denotes the purposeful assemblage of arguments for a particular occasion and setting in light of its anticipated effects and by means of available techniques. The classical legacy – and particularly the work of Aristotle – has handed down the notion of rhetoric as speech fashioned to be as persuasive as possible to specific audiences, particularly those of the court (forensic rhetoric), the ceremony (epideictic rhetoric) or the citizen's assembly (political rhetoric). My claim in this section is that the concept of rhetorical strategy can be adapted to understand political action in contemporary settings. Its enduring virtue lies in registering how argument itself articulates time and space, thereby charging ideas with force and direction in order to orient audiences in their perception of a situation.

‘Strategy’ is an indispensable concept for political action and analysis. If politics names an endeavour that is neither randomly contingent nor totally static, then strategy generally describes the mediation of those extremes. Agents participate in political activity in so far as circumstances permit them some opportunity to intervene and control their environments. Yet such choices, opportunities and interventions are rarely wholly open-ended but circumscribed by constraints to various degrees. To strategise, then, is to formulate a distinct set of judgements to achieve certain ends given (more or less) known constraints.

What is important to note here is that, in politics, strategy is the stuff of public engagement itself and not simply a private, rational calculation made in advance of action. Political actors invite audiences to form judgements by weighing up alternatives, anticipating outcomes and selecting what seems the appropriate option in light of their goals. Strategising is thus a distinctively rhetorical activity: it entails formulating interpretations of a situation such that audiences are moved to respond in certain ways rather than others. Sometimes this is done in relatively closed, elite settings; very often it is much more public.

Classical scholars and rhetoricians, such as Aristotle and Cicero, understood the strategic aspect as an intrinsic dimension and responsibility of the rhetorical arts. It was expressed in ancient concepts such as kairos and stasis: kairos was the sense of ‘appropriateness’ of rhetoric to time, that is, the accordance of an argument to what seems to be true at that moment; and stasis described the effort to determine the space of conflict around an agreed issue (for example, whether a legal dispute hinged on a matter of fact, interpretation or motivation). In ancient rhetoric, then, strategy revolved around parameters deemed proper to a specific community (see Carter, 1988). It was the task of public speakers to align their arguments to this sense of common time and space so that communal needs would remain paramount.

Today, however, it is less easy to assume a stable or common sense of time and space against which strategic choices might be made. This came to the fore in debates among rhetorical scholars in the 1960s and 1970s. In a famous article, Lloyd F. Bitzer (1968) argued that rhetoric is called into being by a determinate situation fuelled by a problem – or what he called an ‘exigence’ such as a crisis, a disaster or a policy failure – whose disruption to routine habits compels the speaker to provide a ‘fitting’ response through argument. Thus the objective situation was thought to determine the intervention by an agent in order to resolve the dilemma. In response, however, Richard E. Vatz (1973) argued the reverse: situations do not determine rhetoric; rhetors (or speakers) themselves create situations with rhetoric. It is the creativity of rhetors that shapes reality by defining the situation through argument. On the one hand, then, the exigence circumscribes the parameters of rhetorical strategy; on the other, strategy consists in the intentions and skills of the rhetor.

The dispute was brought to an instructive resolution in a later article by Scott Consigny (1974), who returned the emphasis to a classical concern with argument as the medium of strategic action. For Consigny, rhetoric is indeed often a response to an exigence, but not exclusively so. The skills and creativity of the rhetor are also important in shaping the situation. Neither, however, is all determining. If situations provide a stimulus for rhetorical intervention, the situation is nevertheless often ‘an indeterminate context marked by a troublesome disorder which the rhetor must structure’ (Consigny, 1974, p. 178). Agents are thus partially forced by situations to act, but how they do so depends upon their ability to formulate what is at stake in the situation. For Consigny, the rhetor's creative engagement with the situation makes all the difference:

Through his actions the rhetor attains a ‘disposition’ of the situation, or a new way of seeing and acting in the situation. He discloses a new ‘gestalt’ for interpreting and acting in the situation, and thereby offers the audience a new perspective to view the situation (Consigny, 1974, p. 179).

The ‘art’ of rhetoric, according to Consigny, consists in identifying issues in indeterminate situations and finding a means of managing them. Doing that depends, fundamentally, on the selection of argument. In classical rhetoric, the selection of argument is linked to the category of the ‘topics’: ‘commonplace’ or established argumentative structures that rhetors select, often from a prepared list. The topic was a device to help the rhetor ascertain the type of persuasion germane to the particularities of the situation (see Lanham, 1991, pp. 152–3): for example, whether it concerned a problem of definition, of comparison or of relationship (for a full list, see Corbett and Connors, 1999, pp. 87–130). For Consigny, as well as being a technical device, the topic also has what might be called an existential dimension as ‘a realm in which the rhetor thinks and acts’ (Consigny, 1974, p. 182). Deriving from topos, meaning place or site (hence ‘situation’) a topic is itself a place from which to conceive the situation. Selecting the topic is thus about both responding to objective conditions and creatively resituating them in the words of the rhetor, thereby diminishing the distance between the speaker and situation, and providing the audience a place from which to grasp the moment anew.

Consigny helps us think about rhetorical strategy as the creative combination of established narrative frames with projectile-like ideas that shift perspectives on a situation. Accordingly, the task of persuasion is to reorient the audience in relation to an exigence by selectively reappropriating the situation as the exemplification of a distinct type of issue, therefore making it amenable to management. Here ideas amplify some aspects of the situation over others, generating associations that trigger common reactions, or introducing new terms that heighten the appeal of certain responses. As such, they construe the situation as a particular kind of event in, and of, time and space with a distinctive significance for the audience; the argument serving as a privileged location from which this new perspective is illuminated.

An example is Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's ‘Winds of Change’ speech to the South African parliament in 1960, in which he announced Britain's support for majority rule across Africa and an end to his government's acceptance of white domination. Macmillan responded to an objective situation of spreading demands for national independence across the continent by presenting these, metaphorically, as an inexorable, nature-like ‘fact’ to which whites urgently had to adapt by abandoning their vain aspiration for continued supremacy (Macmillan, 1960). That charged re-conception of the situation was blended with an insistence that adaptation was the only way to ensure the continued influence of ‘Western civilisation’ in the face of growing communist influence (see Myers, 2000). Thus Macmillan boldly conveyed a controversial idea (radical policy change) by means of topics of definition (what something is) and circumstance (what is possible or impossible), supplemented with an established narrative of Western cultural supremacy.

Structure, Agency and Rhetorical Intervention

How might an understanding of rhetorical strategy be incorporated into the analysis of contemporary politics? Here, we should admit, arguments are developed and applied in environments defined by complex institutional practices that are rarely amenable to casual alteration. Moreover, institutions involve numerous formal and informal layers of custom and practice (for example, law, professional discourses, structures of authority, and so on) that are never immediately visible in one glance. Such layers are resistant to change and typically orient institutions towards some modes of operation and outcomes rather than others. Rhetorical strategies are therefore better conceived as interventions designed to shape arguments and forge alliances in and through as well as against those constraining contexts.

The debates over rhetorical strategy set out above can be linked to the ‘dialectical’ approach to structure and agency developed by recent political sociologists (see Hay, 1996, 2002; Jessop, 1990; 2001). In that approach, social change is conceived as a process interweaving structure and agency. Accordingly, change involves the interaction of enduring practices and discourses, reproduced over time, and efforts by specific actors deliberately to alter those practices and discourses. In a dialectical approach, structure and agency are mutually constitutive, not ontologically distinct: structures offer resources by which actors function as particular kinds of empowered subjects with degrees of agency (for instance, political institutions supply legitimate leaders with access to resources, who can then speak with authority and support their words with practical action) and actors are the medium through which structures are instituted as routinised practices. Thus agency emerges out of structures and structures emerge out of the actions of agents. It also follows that structures never totally structure and agents never fully master their environment; neither commands the field entirely. Structures provide opportunities for agents, which they may or may not take up, but also constrain them to act in accordance with established scripts and routines; and agents inherit rules and customs but nonetheless seek opportunities to impose their will and alter their constraints.

In this partially structured, partially agential environment, strategies are constantly formulated with imperfect knowledge and in contexts that are always already the outcome of earlier strategies. In the ‘strategic-relational’ approach to the state developed by Bob Jessop, for example, the state is conceived as strategically selective; as the ‘condensation’ of earlier strategies, it is readily amenable only to some types of action and agency over others (Jessop, 1990, pp. 260–2). Only certain strategies will be realisable in the short term. Long-term, transformative strategies may be required in order to restructure state practices to make possible other types of action. But such efforts will also be open to delay, revision and failure, with certain opportunities being activated only at distinct temporal stages and phases.

Political sociologists also underscore the dimensions of time and space at work in strategic negotiation. For instance, Colin Hay examines the diachronic pattern of ‘punctuated evolution’ in which periods of stability are interrupted by moments of state crisis and transformation (see Hay, 1996; 2002). Likewise, Jessop and others explore the co-present spatial ‘scales’ of state activity in globalising capitalism, from local to national, international and global (see Brenner, 2004; Jessop, 2002). Strategic action is thus understood as ‘adaptation to structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities’ (Jessop, 1990, p. 266) in light of multiple and overlapping times and spaces that do not spontaneously cohere but require deliberate (re)alignment – for instance, the temporalities of government terms, economic cycles, and the spaces of governance and political conflicts at both national and international levels.

Yet because they are focused on macro-structural phenomena such as states and economic systems, strategic calculation is not usually explored from the perspective of agency. Consequently ideas and discourses are treated as relatively coherent rather than as tentative and provocative manoeuvres. But this is where a rhetorical approach can make an important contribution. The re-appropriation of the situation can be conceived as the agential moment of strategic intervention where constraints and opportunities are given definition in argumentative form (see Opt and Gring, 2009). Such interventions aspire to mediate structure and agency by disclosing ‘the truth’ of the situation and determining the issues at stake. Actors use the structural resources at their disposal rhetorically to ‘problematise’ (see Turnbull, 2007) and so (re)fashion the parameters of choice and conflict so that a preferred kind of agency becomes both legitimate and urgent, often in the face of competing arguments. Of course, strategically selective contexts will make some arguments seem more plausible than others. Effective rhetoric then builds upon its own success by generating ‘feedback loops’ such that earlier interventions are the unquestioned premises of later ones. What was once rhetoric later comes to be ‘common-sense’ premises to routine decisions; what began as an audacious intervention becomes a coherent discursive frame.

In modern political orders, rhetorical situations tend to emerge in the context of the routinised processes and behaviours of social and political systems. The scale of those situations will vary greatly: some will be small interruptions in fairly regularised processes that will not alter much of their overall functioning, while others will dart around and ricochet from one location to another, eventually bringing the survival of whole systems into doubt. If the model of the first is the scandal or policy failure, the model for the second is corruption, a key resignation, war or economic crisis. Politics in complex multilayered systems unfolds simultaneously at various scales and temporalities such that it is difficult to gauge fully the objective dimensions of the situation. Indeed it is the task of rhetorical intervention itself to give definition to the exigence in order to control it, to pinpoint its limits and re-inscribe it as much as possible within established terms or, where a risk is viewed as an opportunity, to utilise its disruption so as to impose a new grammar (see Hay, 1996, pp. 86–7).

Furthermore, political regimes typically supply their own platforms for actors to make such interventions in a regulated manner that reduces the potential for uncontrolled disputation. Democratic systems, for example, distribute speaking functions in various ways that provide privileged times and places for intervention: in parliamentary debates, for example, party conferences or electoral campaigns, as well as via press conferences or political interviews (see Palonen, 2008). The effectiveness of strategy will partly depend, then, on how a speaker utilises the prevailing conditions of any speech event (its conventions and audiences, for example) to maintain the exigence within the times and spaces of ‘normal’ governance (for example, within a term of office, using normal channels of political support and policy formation). Equally, it may be that a crisis prevents regular forms of communication from being effective and exceptional forms may be used (for example, De Gaulle's radio broadcasts to the French Resistance during the Second World War).

The theoretical debates about structure and agency in political analysis can deepen the concept of rhetorical strategy, developed in the previous section, by alerting us to the wider, dynamic context to speech interventions. Unlike classical rhetoric, they suggest that the situations in which political actors intervene are complex, layered intersections of space and time, substantially structured and so constrained by previous strategies. Thus, for all his linguistic novelty, Blair's modernisation rhetoric built directly upon the successes of earlier Conservative administrations by accommodating a ‘consensus’ on free markets and consumer choice as instruments of public policy (Hay, 1996, pp. 162–6). Having dismantled his party's traditional social democratic agenda to meet this consensus, he was then able to exploit the opportunity handed by an unpopular, exhausted and divided government. More than just clever wordplay, Blair's rhetoric ‘adapted to the structural constraints and conjunctural opportunities’ by providing the rationale for a durable electoral coalition to help him maintain a stable domestic economy, permit him to reform it in globally competitive conditions without major social division and, at the same time, reassure European and international partners of the UK's cooperation in similar objectives on a wider scale (see Finlayson, 2003).

Finally, it should also be noted that dialectical perspective benefits from a rhetorical approach to strategy – for two reasons: because (a) like other interpretive approaches it fills out the ‘agency’ side of the structure/agency dynamic by attending to actors' roles in producing ideas, namely through argumentative strategies in specific situations; and (b) unlike other interpretive approaches it uniquely identifies rhetorical techniques as strategic manoeuvres in the recasting of structure.

Analysing Rhetoric: A Method and an Example

What, then, might a rhetorical analysis (or interpretation) of political strategy look like? I have argued above that strategies comprise arguments situated at specific moments they provocatively recast in order to orient audiences. The task of the analyst, then, is to interpret not just the internal coherence of a discourse but the way speech is assembled in response to specific situations. Certainly, that may be achieved in any number of ways. A generic approach, however, will help us to identify some core features. Here I want to set out three moments and use these to explore, in brief, a well-known example of speech.

A Method for Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical analysis should be concerned with three distinct moments of a speech intervention, each of which combines structure and agency in a particular way and hence serves as a separate area for interpretation:

  • (1) the rhetorical context;
  • (2) the rhetorical argument; and
  • (3) the rhetorical effects.

In what do these moments consist? The rhetorical context refers to the immediate conditions giving rise to a speech occasion. Interpreting a rhetorical context involves identifying the historical time and place of the intervention, the exigence(s) to which it is a response (a perceived problem) and any broader circumstances the intervention also seeks to shape.2 The local time and place of speech often involves its own degree of constraint and opportunity where a speaker is charged to deliver a particular type of discourse to a specific audience. Where classical rhetoric divided these into three, today it is reasonable to identify forms that combine generic elements of each, such as parliamentary speeches, press conferences, party conference speeches, political interviews, and so on. Specifying the generic occasion helps determine what is expected of the speaker and what conventions are typically upheld. An effective intervention is often elaborated according to recognised formulae that ensure its reception as a proper speech for the occasion. That alignment with convention constrains what can be said but also offers opportunities to speak legitimately. Party conference speeches, for example, use ceremony (with associations of goodwill and common feeling) in a way that speeches in formal assemblies cannot. The shaping of speech and argument to fit with the occasion is known as ‘decorum’. Given the degree of disruption caused by an exigence, it is always possible for the genre conventions to be altered or challenged.3

The rhetorical argument concerns the situation configured in the language of the speech itself, where constraint and opportunity are discursively re-imagined. Here the traditional classifications of rhetoric serve to interpret how discourse defines the situation and refigures perceived constraints to make an opening for effective agency. This is the moment that ideas are shaped into an argument for an audience (and often more than one audience). Rhetorical argument typically comprises four of the classical canons – argumentative appeals, arrangement, style and delivery (see Leith, 2011) – shaped to maximise its effect and hence its persuasive force. While usually following the conventions of the occasion, the choice of topic, as discussed above, is the central aspect of this strategic moment.

Finally, gauging rhetorical effects involves interpreting the alteration to the situation after the intervention; that is, noting whether any constraints have been overcome and certain kinds of action made possible. Such effects may be immediate (provoking a decision or a form of conduct) but also longer term. An intervention may aim to supply the language by which other actors are constrained to interpret similar or related situations. To do so requires repeated efforts to build a vocabulary and arguments that may be redeployed later. For example, the term ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s exemplified the eventual success of a definition of the situation as a developmental transition open to erstwhile antagonists (see Shirlow and McGovern, 1998). Of course, the measurement of success is never easy since rhetoric develops and alters over time as it is deployed in different circumstances. It is also true that some rhetoric becomes influential in ways that are quite different and even at odds with the original circumstances of its delivery. Eloquent or memorable speeches can always be selectively quoted when their original situation is no longer recalled (does anyone remember why Lincoln spoke of government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people'?). Nonetheless, the effects of a speech intervention can often be gauged if they appear to have enabled a speaker to enhance his or her capacity to act and speak in certain ways and constrain others to follow likewise. In that respect, we may reasonably infer that rhetorical strategy has contributed to defining the parameters of choice and conflict, compelling others to accept its terms of reference to the situation and to position themselves accordingly.4


In the remainder of this section, I apply these three foci to a specific example of rhetorical strategy. President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address of 20 January 1961 (see Kennedy, 1961) is a familiar, iconic speech and a much-admired example of liberal idealism at the height of the Cold War. It is not exemplary of every aspect of rhetoric but serves as a useful example of the strategic appropriation of a situation, deliberately moving its audience by combining established narratives with provocative rhetoric. What follows cannot be an exhaustive analysis (for which, see Tofel, 2005) but, rather, a loose discussion of the type of investigation that could be undertaken. Let us proceed in the order of the three aspects of analysis.

Rhetorical Context. 

Any analysis of the speech must begin from its status both as an inaugural address and as an intervention at a particular moment in the Cold War. The strategy of the speech is closely bound up with the constraints and opportunities supplied by those partially structured contexts. As an inaugural, the speech fits a tradition in the life cycle of a presidential administration (every four years): it follows the swearing of the Oath of Office and is delivered publicly at the White House in Washington DC in the January following the election of the previous November. As a ceremonial speech, it embellishes a ritual function of confirming the new President. This is signified in the affirmation of values that ‘renew the covenant’ connecting leader and citizens, and the invocation of the origins of that covenant in a common historical experience (namely, founding the republic; see Campbell and Jamieson, 2008, ch. 2). The speech is therefore a safe opportunity to say little of overt controversy but, rather, to enhance the President's ethos – or character – by invoking larger themes, thus inscribing himself within depoliticised expectations. As Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (2008) put it, the inaugural is a place to start ‘creating’ the Presidency through words.

It would be wrong, however, to think of the inaugural as being entirely outside domestic politics. Kennedy was aware that his personal authority had yet to be fully established, having emerged the winner of the 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon with only a small margin. He was not unequivocally the people's choice. Indeed, he was young, relatively inexperienced, a Catholic and regarded as something of a playboy (see Dallek, 2003, p. 225). Furthermore, he was conscious of a need for civic renewal in a society undergoing rapid economic growth but still shaped by defensive and paranoid attitudes from the war. So the inaugural provided a first opportunity to underscore Kennedy's substance and appropriateness for the post by presenting himself as a progressive, unifying leader of the US and the world.

The wider context of the Cold War, however, provides the dominant exigence for the speech's strategy. The hostilities between the two superpowers – the USSR and America – directly inform the sense of uncertainty and potential for violence that the speech addresses. The Cold War was in many respects an unavoidably rhetorical experience in that its focus was rarely on actual ‘hot’ conflict but, rather, on the perceptions of threat, definitions of strategic interests and negotiations with the ‘enemy’ to avoid dangerous escalation. Designating both a structured space of rivalry and of forced cooperation, the Cold War was marked by a deep ambivalence that rivals sought to master (Scott, 1997, p. 4).

Kennedy therefore inherited a situation that had already been strategically framed. Under President Eisenhower the US had not only completed a war in Korea, it was also involved in continuing disputes with the Soviets over the status of Berlin and had observed the Chinese revolution and the stirrings of communist activity in Latin America and Cuba. Most importantly, the US military was convinced of its own inferiority in weapons in relation to the USSR. The arms race had begun in earnest and the capacity to send nuclear warheads on missiles across Europe was an urgent priority. Soviet superiority had already been demonstrated with its launch of the Sputnik satellites. Although Eisenhower had been (rightfully) suspicious of the degree of Soviet advances in weapons technology, a frantic, hawkish atmosphere pervaded the US military and intelligence circles. Eisenhower had initiated a form of national mobilisation – funding universities and research projects, as well as enhancing already massive military spending (see Walker, 1993, pp. 115–7). The prevailing sense, among some at least, was that the USSR was on the offensive and simply could not be ‘contained’. The US had to be prepared to defeat it.

In retrospect, if the structure of the Cold War remained relatively stable, at any moment it was never clear precisely what advantage either side had over the other and that made for a constant sense of uncertainty. Moreover, underlying cracks and fissures were never entirely resolved or predictable (not least because each superpower had to rely on its partners that pushed and pulled against each power). So the parameters of international political action had regularly to be defined if only to shape some foothold from which to proceed. Let us now look at how this was sought in the rhetorical argument of Kennedy's speech.

Rhetorical Argument

Kennedy's speech sets out an indirectly political argument addressed primarily at an international audience. The arrangement and delivery follow a regular ceremonial format proper for a domestic audience, but the mode of argument and its stylistic elements subvert that format noticeably. Having just sworn the Oath of Office, his speech adopts a pattern of addressing named audiences in the world and making pledges to them, too. Thus his argument is not that of logical claims supported by evidence (an appeal to logos) but a series of personal pledges (ethos) in keeping with the decorum of an inaugural. That combination of ceremonial elements with wider themes allows Kennedy to set out ideas that, in projectile fashion, challenge the audiences' orientation to the prevailing situation and yet remain disguised within an apparently depoliticised frame. As we shall see, the argumentative topic is that of contraries – mutually incompatible positions (see Corbett and Connors, 1999, pp. 105–6) – that are to be overcome by a sense of common endeavour.

As one scholar notes, the speech is unique as an inaugural by virtue of its ‘address system’ (Meyer, 1982). By tradition the inaugural is addressed to one, generalised national constituency, but here it is uniquely utilised to address a variety of audiences. Of the speech's 27 short paragraphs, 23 contain a direct or indirect address to a specific addressee (Meyer, 1982, p. 247). For example:

  • To those old allies …

  • To those new states …

  • To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe …

  • To our sister republics … (Kennedy, 1961, pp. 298–9).

Kennedy also appeals to the United Nations, to ‘our enemies’, ‘fellow Americans’ and ‘citizens of the World’. The safety of the inaugural ceremony permits him to ‘hail’ his auditors as though he was renewing America's pledge to the world. By the end of the list it is also clear that his real focus is the Soviet Union. This is evident when he switches to his repeated pledges, all of which begin with ‘Let both sides …’ (Kennedy, 1961, p. 300). The many named audiences are now reduced to two hostile camps: a return to the dichotomous spatial logic of the Cold War (see Meyer, 1982, p. 247).

Stylistically, the speech is filled with dramatic contrasts and oppositions, as well as powerful imagery of conflict and reconciliation. These support the argumentative topic of the speech by signifying risks of antagonism and potential rewards for cooperative behaviour between the superpowers. In one phrase, for example, Kennedy pledges ‘the loyalty of faithful friends’ taking up ‘a host of cooperative ventures’ but then warns of being ‘divided’ and ‘split asunder’. He welcomes new states to the ‘ranks of the free’ but then alerts his audience to the threat of ‘iron tyranny’. Almost every significant pledge is doubled up with a contrary sentiment that qualifies it. The device even becomes part of individual phrases focused on abstract principles that turn back on their original meaning, such as:

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate (Kennedy, 1961, p. 299, p. 300).

The effect of these paradoxes and oppositions is to present a series of quandaries that construct the international situation as an uncertain space of dilemmas, choices and dangers. Kennedy offers the implicit metaphor of an exhausted battleground, shaped by an extraordinarily costly and ‘uncertain balance of terror’ (in the form of nuclear weapons). From that image of entrenched and unwinnable warfare, however, comes a repeated invitation to reconciliation: ‘Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divided us’.

Kennedy then uses the battlefield theme to call a truce, that is, to place both sides on the same side and to open the door to cooperation. He invites the imperious advance of ‘mankind’ (rather than states) not across national territories but into other parts of nature – space, the seas, the deserts as well as the arts – and around ‘the common enemies of man’ – ‘tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself’. A divided space of contraries now comes to be envisaged as a unified open space of mutual endeavour.

As for the temporality of this situation, Kennedy conjures doubled-up images of urgency and eternity. He talks of the ‘Hour of maximum danger’ and invites an anxiety about swift and violent responses from the US when he offers to oppose aggression anywhere in the Americas. The temporalities of conflict are then combined with the eternal promise of peace. He announces the ‘trumpet summons’ that calls him and his ‘embattled’ audience to a ‘long twilight struggle’. So the twitchy anxiety of real warfare is superseded by the more assured horizon of eternal justice. The ‘torch’ being ‘passed to a new generation’ illuminates for Kennedy a future space and time that transcends the present situation.

The paradoxical intertwining of present risk and future reward is also reflected in that most memorable example of patriotic antimetabole (the repetition of a phrase in reverse order) where the speech reaches its climax: ‘And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’ (Kennedy, 1961, p. 301). This famous line is emblematic of Kennedy's argument. Reversing the order of the first phrase performs the very inversion the audience(s) are challenged to make in their own minds: to reorient their own priorities such that public duty overcomes private desire. By this means Kennedy invokes an idealised audience to authorise him to negotiate the contradictory space and time the speech has imagined.

Rhetorical Effects

How did Kennedy's various audiences react to his oration? The speech was well received by his domestic audience, with the press noting its eloquence and economy (it was one of the shortest inaugurals). Rhetorical scholars drew attention to its elegance and the patriotic theme that served the immediate purpose of strengthening the speaker's personal authority and providing healing after the divisions of election (see Corbett and Connors, 1999, pp. 461–72). This was very much the reaction Kennedy hoped to have; later reports indicate that he wanted a memorable address to enhance his personal appeal and worked hard on the draft with his advisers, particularly Ted Sorenson, to achieve this (Dallek, 2003, pp. 321–33, p. 324).

As a speech addressed to the international world, however, the reaction was less effusive. The Soviets, in particular, were baffled. As one commentator asks: ‘were they being invited to an international coalition to give foreign aid to the poor, or to a nuclear war?’ (Walker, 1993, p. 146) The contradictory signals in the speech – a battlefield scenario vs. the forward march of mankind – did not permit an unambiguous reading of Kennedy's intentions.

Furthermore, in retrospect Kennedy's administration did not achieve anything like the positive advances proclaimed in his inaugural. Alongside his successes in facing down the Soviets in Cuba might be set his failure to make advances elsewhere in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, his unsuccessful summit with Khrushchev over Berlin, where East Germans were eventually walled in, to say nothing of Vietnam (see Graubard, 2009, pp. 20–1). Any sober assessment of the effect of Kennedy's intervention will take these details into consideration. Arguably, his untimely death (in 1963) may have permitted his mediocrity as a President to be set aside and his early promise to be magnified as his enduring legacy.

A brief sketch suggests that Kennedy's inaugural sought to initiate an intervention in international affairs by rhetorically refiguring the Cold War situation. That he ultimately failed in this quest is not solely the fault of his rhetoric, either in this speech or others. But his rhetoric does give us a clue to his limitations. Kennedy, like other presidents after him, was unable to overcome the Cold War logic of rivalry. The conciliatory tones of the 1961 speech were intrinsically linked to those of censure, that is, to the demand that the enemy withdraw from overt hostility and antagonism. Despite the enduring humanitarianism of his rhetoric, his strategy did not succeed in reshaping ideas to become a new language of international cooperation.


I have set out the rationale and a general method for a rhetorical approach to political strategy. In so doing I have claimed that speech is a dynamic medium for mobilising ideas as a form of action. To explore such action requires that we analyse how speech both responds to and acts upon a situation, utilising ideas both as relatively structured resources and as ‘projectiles’ that provoke reorientation among audiences. A rhetorical approach provides a wealth of categories and terms for examining how arguments are deployed strategically, that is, in specific times and places and for particular audiences. Important to this account, however, is the claim that argumentative topics are a means to resituate prevailing circumstances. That view is taken from debates in rhetorical theory but it is compatible with recent developments in political sociology that defend an interactive or dialectical account of structure and agency. Unlike classical rhetoric, a dialectical political sociology treats discourse within the complex and shifting terrain of modern states. Accordingly, a rhetorical response to a situation is a discursive intervention at the intersection of overlapping times and spaces that are partially structured but also partially open to creative alteration. Finally, I sketched the basis of a method to analyse speech this way, underscoring three moments of rhetorical strategy: the context, the argument and the effects. The example of President Kennedy's Inaugural Address was briefly employed to illustrate how such a method might be applied.

There is, of course, a wide variety of other ways to explore how ideas and arguments inform politics. A rhetorical approach can and should draw upon work in linguistics and the analysis of ideology, discourse and culture, for example. These can illuminate many of the techniques of communication and the discursive resources upon which political actors regularly draw, as well as the constraints upon them when they utilise ideas. Rhetorical analysis is not incompatible with such approaches and shares much with them. But the distinct advantage of the rhetorical approach, I have argued, is its focus on speech itself as the locus of creative political action. This is an action not simply of asserting preconceived ideas or applying normative claims but, rather, of projecting these so as to reposition opponents and refresh the audience's perspective on the situation. As the Kennedy example indicates, these strategies do not always succeed. Nonetheless, examining rhetorical speech can illuminate one of the vital means by which actors do politics with ideas.

About the Author


Earlier versions of this article were presented in 2011 to the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester and to the PSA Annual Conference in London. For comments that assisted its revision, I am grateful to participants at those events, Alan Finlayson in particular, and to the journal's referees and editors.

  1. 1

    Interestingly, this equivocation mirrors the conceptual division made in political theory between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ (see Mouffe, 2005). Party bickering is often dismissed as the regular game playing of politics that rarely alters the structure of conflict. But speech that acknowledges the political dimension, that is, the fundamental contingency of established principles and practices, is frequently admired for its audacity.

  2. 2

    On historical context and the rhetorical study of concepts, see the ‘Cambridge School’ of political thought, particularly Skinner, 2002.

  3. 3

    For example, see the analysis of Tony Blair's party conference speech at his ‘farewell’ in 2007 in Finlayson and Martin, 2008.

  4. 4

    Consider, for example, the term ‘war on terror’ announced by the Bush administration and its widespread acceptance (and manipulation) by the US media.


  • James Martin has written widely on continental political thought and contemporary political theory. He is the author of Piero Gobetti and the Politics of Liberal Revolution (Palgrave, 2008) and he has recently edited Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political (Routledge, 2013). He convenes the PSA specialist group for Rhetoric and Politics. James Martin, Department of Politics, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK; email: