The Rhetoric of Democracy

Recently, we have been studying democracy in Comparative Politics, and what enables a democracy to exist. In this study, terms such as “civil society” have come up in our reading. The term “civil society” is defined as: “the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society” (World English Dictionary). The word “civil” holds a connotation of positive, ordered life in which people can thrive happily. Wouldn’t we all prefer a “civil society” to a “disorderly society”? Already, we see the rhetoric power of democracy at work. Earlier in the year for my Language and Composition course, we did a unit focusing on the rhetoric used by the presidential candidates during their debates. In this blog post, I plan to explore the rhetoric of democracy and how it is used to influence politicians and citizens.

Returning to the “civil society,” I will be discussing the definition found here:  The first entry is the most common usage, which specifies a democratic society. By association of terms, civil society—a peaceful and orderly society—comes to mean a democratic society. The rhetoric here implies, through hasty generalization (a form of logical fallacy), that all democratic societies are civil, and all civil societies (separating this from the definition used above and referring to a peaceful society) are democratic. Someone who does not recognize the logical fallacy here could easily come to the conclusion that in order to have a peaceful and orderly society, they must attain democracy. This is the point that so far has been made in our class: Democracy is the best.

As I have repeatedly pointed out during our discussions, democracy is not the best form of government for everyone. In fact, the United States—where the colonists held the ideal beliefs for a democratic society—isn’t a democracy. We are a republic by definition, since our country features representatives voted into office by the people, rather than direct representation in government. In other places, though, where cultural ideals and behavior do not foster democracy, we push democracy the hardest.

Take the recent visit by our Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, to Afghanistan. In a subtle use of rhetoric, the New York Times  journalist Thom Shanker implies that the president of Afghanistan—President Hamid Karzai—is not a true president. In newspapers, titles are very important in how the subject of the article is perceived. Our presidents are almost always called “President” as their official title, and other important officials of the government are also referred to by their title. Many unpopular figures in the media, such as Hilary Clinton, however are referred to in subtly different terms. Clinton was never named as the Secretary of State in articles, unless it was strictly necessary. She was instead referred to as “Mrs. Clinton,” which gives her name less weight and makes her seem less important. In this article, Shanker once lists President Karzai as the president, before referring to him as Mr. Karzai for the duration of the article.

A subtle difference, to say the least, but important. This use of title rhetoric creates the idea that President Karzai is not as important, and one reason why: He is not a democratic president in the views of the US. To the US, Afghanistan remains under the power of a tyrant with little regard for the safety of the people. Granted, this may not be far from the truth considering the current state of things in Afghanistan. But the point of the matter is: US journalists, politicians, and others are inclined to use democratic rhetoric to make their points, which creates a heavy democratic mindset for readers and debaters of politics.

I am not saying that democracy is a poor form of government, or that it doesn’t work where it has been previously established. But the idea that the US is required to bring democracy to other countries, who are lost little sheep waiting for their shepherd, is inaccurate. It is not up to the US government to decide what countries need democracy, and how best to introduce democratic society into their country. Our current attempts have been suffering greatly, in fact, which should serve as an indication that the US is not the ultimate decision maker for the rest of the world. The general idea in the US that we need to take democracy to the rest of the world and save them from their own tyrannical government is created primarily by the democratic rhetoric used in our news that encourages us to feel both nationalistic and imperialistic about our government. 


One comment

  1. This is an interesting post, Cat. I had not really considered the subconscious effect that use of titles can have on a reader. US foreign policy has always been complex with democratic ideals and economic or security interests sometimes at odds and sometimes conflating. Clearly we do not intervene in every non-democratic regime. What factors do you think use us to get involved? In my Middle East class, we have been looking at intervention in Libya and lack of intervention in Syria, for example.


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