American Political Rhetoric

American Political Rhetoric

The State of American Speech in the Digital Media

About the Book

"The art of politics is the art of telling the truth" - Attributed to Thomas Jefferson

"His remark was not intended to be a factual statement" - The office of Senator Jon Kyl


The purpose of this pamphlet is to address the current state of American political rhetoric in the digital media and to provide a common language for discussing its uses and abuses.

Rhetorical Devices

An important part of this project is to give names to some of the most powerful rhetorical devices that are commonly deployed to manipulate political discussion. Once these devices are given names, they can be 'called out' or properly exposed in the same context in which they are used.

The following is an example of how each rhetorical device is analyzed.

Pulling a Boehner


To dishonestly present yourself as the disappointed ally of your declared enemy.


The claim that Obama has failed to cooperate with Republicans.

The prima facie lack of cooperation between the two parties in Washington is presented by Republicans, and even some Democrats, as though it is a negative outcome for which Obama is responsible, when it is, in fact, a direct result of their own strategic refusal to cooperate with the President. As a rhetorical device, 'pulling a Boehner' like this works primarily because we second-guess ourselves when we confront such extreme hypocrisy. We simply refuse to accept the fact that the Republicans, an American political party comprised of many people who genuinely believe themselves to be patriots, are deliberately undermining the federal government of the United States. We would rather spread the blame around than believe that a person could be so dishonest as to pretend that a state of affairs he both wanted and caused, is a bad thing caused by someone else. In other words, people get away with pulling Boehners because they are exploiting the strength of our good nature. In this example, just consider the fact that Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) actually told us that undermining the President was what he and his party were up to; and yet we still entertain the idea that Obama is to blame for the lack of cooperation in Congress.


One reason this tactic works, is that it refers to a fact: in this example, the self-evident lack of cooperation between the President and the Republicans.

One way or another, the person 'pulling a Boehner' can always fall back on the root fact in their own defense. In this case, they would begin to act as though they were just saying that the lack of cooperation is real, and that surely we can all agree it's bad, and can't we all just get along… and then they would probably trail off, so you could fill the empty space with your own qualified but obliging agreement.

If I may digress for a moment, it is noteworthy that those who pull this particular Boehner are also conflating getting your way with cooperation; that is, the only proof of Obama's cooperation that his detractors would accept - is his complete capitulation.

This is a particularly powerful move because it is often a genuine mistake, rather than a deliberate tactic. In other words, people genuinely don't see that their concept of cooperation is identical with getting precisely what they want. It is therefore advisable to beware anyone who makes generic claims about the positivity of 'working together'. They are trying to characterize any and all actual disagreement with them on policy as something else: a stubborn refusal to get along. Why can't we all just work together? Maybe it's because we actually disagree about the kind of work we should be doing. When you hear someone making generic calls for 'working together', ask them why they don't just change their minds and 'work together' with their own enemy, to advance their enemy's agenda. No doubt they will be full of explanations for what they really meant, but in the ensuing conversation, stick to the point: when they spoke about 'everyone working together' they really meant 'everyone doing what I want', or, to get to the psychological heart of their mistake, 'everyone following my commands'.

The Tactical Counter

Call it out.

For example, when someone says that Obama has failed to cooperate with Congress, or Republicans, say that they are 'pulling a Boehner'. When they ask what that means, and you then define it, it is up to them to eplain why Republican refusal to cooperate with Obama is the President's failure.

The Earnest Response

Simply declare that the person pulling a Boehner is complaining about something he caused.

Point both to examples of Republican refusal to cooperate, like the McConnell statement, and also to examples of Obama's attempts to cooperate.

The Joke Response

"That's like saying the humans in Battelstar Galactica 'failed to cooperate' with the cylons."

More Rhetorical Devices

Here is a list of some other rhetorical devices I will analyze in the pamphlet:

  • Swift Boating
  • Playing the Bongos
  • Body Snatching
  • Standing Your Ground
  • False Opposition
  • The Scarecrow
  • Crossing the Streams
  • Shaking the Etch-a-Sketch
  • Walking It Back
  • Dumpster Diving
  • Doubling Down
  • Woodshedding
  • Bear Poking

About the Author

Len Epp
Len Epp

Once upon a time I wrote a DPhil thesis on the significance of 'clarity' and 'obscurity' in politics, philosophy and literature. I work at Leanpub.

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