True leaders practice art of persuasion

by Lynn Schmidt

There is something that has been sorely missing in the United States in the last decade — soaring rhetoric. We are lacking leaders who, like Abraham Lincoln, appeal to our better angels through their ability to craft rhetoric that resonates in people’s hearts and minds.

Rhetoric appeals to people’s emotions and logic to persuade, motivate, or inform. In the fourth century B.C., Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote “The Art of Rhetoric,” in which he defined rhetoric as the “ability to discover the available means of persuasion.”

Aristotle outlined three modes of persuasion, each appealing to its audience in different ways: logos, ethos and pathos. Logos is the appeal to logic and reason. It relies on the content of the message, including data and facts, to support its claims. Ethos relies on the reputation of the speaker. The speaker or writer must be notable or a known authority, which establishes credibility. Pathos establishes an emotional connection to the audience. Speakers or writers who use all three modes of persuasion are usually the most successful.

The study of rhetoric developed alongside the development of the ideas around democracy in fifth-century Athens. Some American leaders have been effective in reminding us that democracy and rhetoric go hand in hand. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is a good example.

Our two most recent presidents certainly don’t have that flair. President Donald Trump, while he may have had the authority and the emotional connection to a segment of the American electorate, lacked logic and reason. Trump also actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions. President Joe Biden has never been an eloquent speaker. And while he has endless amounts of empathy, he falls short on elevating the American people to rise to the challenges we face. After Trump’s refusal to peacefully transfer the power of the presidency, a significant percentage of the population still refuses to give Biden the credibility he deserves.

The world’s stage has provided us with an example of a modern-day champion of freedom, delivered with a healthy dose of oratory. That leader is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has called on his citizens and the world to join the fight for Ukrainian sovereignty. Zelenskyy tapped into his inner Churchill when addressing the U.K.’s House of Commons, saying, “We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” Zelenskyy declared to the U.S. Congress, “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”

Each year, Freedom House releases its “Freedom in the World” report. This year, the report warns that U.S. democracy is in decline — as it has been for the past decade. The report says that “Congress and the Biden administration must make it a priority to strengthen our institutions, restore civic norms, and uphold the promise of universal liberty on which our nation was founded.”

America needs to find leaders who can inspire us in this mission. But perhaps we already found her. A little over a year ago, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., spoke on the House floor the night before she was removed from her leadership position within the Republican Party, reminding members of their oaths “to support and defend the Constitution, if we recognize threats to freedom when they arise.”

She concluded: “Ultimately, this is at the heart of what our oath requires: that we love our country more. That we love her so much we will stand above politics to defend her. That we will do everything in our power to protect our Constitution and our freedom — paid for by the blood of so many. We must love her so much we will never yield in her defense. That is our duty.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who took over Cheney’s position as the party’s third-ranking member, tweeted last Friday: “The White House, House Dems, & usual pedo grifters are so out of touch with the American people.”

It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast between women who held the same position of Republican leadership. Cheney loves America so much that she calls us to rise above politics to protect the country. Stefanik, on the other hand, is championing division — even to the point of calling Democrats pedophiles.

America needs to find leaders who are skilled at the art of rhetoric while promoting our democratic principles, and not just divisively communicating via social media or cable news clips.

For naysayers who contend that America is too polarized to listen, I suggest reading any of Lincoln’s speeches. Lincoln showed us the way with his words and deeds.

True leaders speak to all of us, as one country, as one people, as Americans — always reminding us of what that means.

Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and Editorial Board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.