The Gorgias, American Carnage and Cambridge Analytica: Populist Messaging and Irish Political Discourse

The Gorgias, American Carnage and Cambridge Analytica: Populist Messaging and Irish Political Discourse

Greek Rhetorician, Gorgias

It’s been a long while since I read any Plato, and over 20 years since I read his Dialogues and much water has passed under many bridges since then. But despite the passing of time and the enormous change in context, particularly the technological context, listening to Melvin Bragg’s ever informative In Our Time podcast and his panel’s discussion of the Gorgias, one is struck but how little human nature or our body politic has changed since the time of Plato’s writing.

Plato held strong negative views on the role and function of rhetoric and rhetoricians, motivated at least in part by the execution of Socrates, but also by how rhetoric operates at cross purposes to philosophy. Philosophy as a word means ‘love of knowledge’, and Plato sought through his work to investigate ethics, what constitutes the Good Life and to distinguish between knowledge and belief.

Rhetoric, on the other hand, is less concerned with truth. It is instead the power to sway, to persuade, to exert control over others through the power of argument. Its relationship to truth or knowledge is ambivalent at best, and if inciting, gratifying or pandering works to win over the majority, that is acceptable. It doesn’t require in the speaker a knowledge of the subject matter, particularly if the audience isn’t knowledgeable either. And it’s ambivalent too as to whether it appeals to our better nature or our worse selves – rhetoric is about the winning of the argument.

As a politician, I have to accept that rhetoric is part of the role. In order to achieve political aims – be that climate action, a smaller state or a 32-county republic – a politician has to use their powers of persuasion, such as they are, to win a sufficient mandate to prosecute those aims.

But a question I have to ask myself as a person is how far I’ll go in terms of presenting that case; to what extent I’ll chose to appeal to the better or worse natures in each of us, how closely bound I’ll be to truth or evidence, and whether I’ll sell my message to head or heart, hopes or fears.

Declinism can be a very powerful rhetorical tool in swaying public opinion, playing to our negative biases and appealing to a nostalgia for an often imagined past. It’s often deployed by nativist far-right movements both here and abroad to argue that life was better before this or that group arrived or this or that group had a freedom of expression they now have. It was employed very powerfully by the Trump campaign in its ‘American Carnage’ vision, but there are strains of it in the Brexit argument and there are strains of it in opposition politics here too. Mark Henry’s recent book In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100 sets out some of the substantial social and economic progress made by this state in its first century – you would be hard pressed to hear those arguments made in the Dáil at times.

(And I am prone to declinism myself – the staggering loss of biodiversity during my lifetime and the destablising of our climate systems makes it difficult for me to maintain optimism about my children’s future in a warming world. But it is, of course, always easier to ask others to make a change than to expect it of myself, or to apportion blame elsewhere.)

Populism is another powerful device. If one is prepared to be all things to all men, to appeal to heart or gut over head, feeling over reason, simplicity over complexity, there are appealing arguments to be made. All sweets and no dentists is an easy message to sell. Until you have a toothache.

But if the fundamentals of human nature are not much changed since Plato’s time, the tools available to the rhetorician are far beyond the scope of what Gorgias might have imagined. All good communicators seek to speak to people where they are in a language they understand, but the power of the likes of a Cambridge Analytica approach to test, refine and individuate messages to appeal to specific cohorts using a wealth of metadata and the complete ambivalence of the social media algorithm in monetising attention creates a power nexus that poses a threat to democracies (should you think I’m over-egging, I write this on the anniversary of the Storming of the Capitol Building). Never before has the rhetorician had not just the reach, but the capacity to individuate messages to play into the listeners’ biases and dispositions or the ability to amplify and reinforce their message in social media echo chambers. The disruption of the business model of the traditional media has impaired the capacity of the Fourth Estate to dispute or disprove ‘fake news’ at a time when it is arguably more important than ever before.

History teaches us harsh lessons about where populism and declinism have led us before, and we can see those patterns playing out in other countries across the globe. I have some hope that the small size of our democracy and the closeness of our politicians to their communities may protect us from the worst outworkings of these patterns, but we would be foolish to assume ourselves immune.

But while I accept that rhetoric or the power to persuade has to be part of the role of the TD, I chose to believe we have a responsibility to be informed and to inform as well. I choose to believe, in common with Dewey, that our imperfect democracy is a process rather than a fixed idea, and that by engaging in informed and deliberative debate rather than the worst impulses of rhetoric, we can not only govern ourselves effectively and empathetically, but in doing so can expand and improve our capacity as individuals, communities and a wider society.