Years ago, Heinrichs visited the Italian Riviera and ate dinner with two locals, Gianni and Carlo. Gianni went on a drunken rant about how Americans are fat because they drink too much water, and then began arguing the point with Heinrichs. He wasn’t really trying to persuade, and didn’t even believe what he was saying—and yet, his rhetorical performance was a “bonding experience” for Heinrichs. These days, it’s rare for Americans to argue—in fact, in America “only the rude, the insane, and politicians disagree.” Rhetoric has largely gone out of fashion, partly because classical education faded away in the 19th century. In this final chapter, Heinrichs will show that rhetoric “could help lead us out of our political mess” and that rhetoric has always played a critical role in the functioning of a successful democracy.
The decline of rhetoric is particularly noticeable in the United States—Heinrichs suggests that Europeans may be less squeamish about getting into passionate arguments, and even treat arguing as a fun or edifying experience (as with Gianni’s rant), rather than just a form of fighting. In writing a book about the beauty and subtlety of rhetoric, Heinrichs hopes to complicate the all-too common assumption that arguing is impolite, uncivilized, or otherwise improper, and show that arguing, if done correctly, is the height of sophistication, and a much-needed antidote for political squabbles.
Heinrichs likes to relate everything back to the history of rhetoric—a habit which his family finds highly annoying. However, in the case of American history, his habit is justified. Most of the key figures in the American Revolution had been trained in the art of rhetoric. The Founders idolized the Greeks and Romans—among the Founders, praising an orator as a “modern Cicero” was the highest compliment. Furthermore, one of the most popular plays in early Revolutionary society was Cato, in which the ancient Roman Cato declares “give me liberty or give me death”—a line that the Founding Father Patrick Henry later used in his own speeches.
There was a time when Americans—or rather, American colonial elites—were well versed in the art of rhetoric. They loved to debate and orate, and considered the ability to use rhetoric to one’s advantage a sign of maturity and intelligence. While it’s well-known that the Founding Fathers idolized the ancient Greeks and Romans, most history classes only stress the influence of the ancients on American governmental organization, omitting a discussion of rhetoric.
The Founders idolized the ancient Greeks and Romans, but they were also haunted by their mistakes. In particular, the Founders tried to understand why democracy failed in Athens, and why it destroyed the Roman Republic. They believed that factionalism— i.e., conflicts between different groups—bred chaos. So the Founders instituted a system of checks and balances designed to prevent any one faction from becoming too powerful. In the Founders’ system of democracy, a “chosen body of citizens”—citizens who’d been trained in rhetoric—would be responsible for translating public opinion into government policy. Rhetorically gifted citizens were everywhere in early America—in fact, early Harvard and Columbia graduates were required to read Ciceronian orations.
Many of the Founding Fathers, especially James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, argued that democracy could only work if the different sectors of the population (factions) cooperated with the help of a stable government. Thus, the purpose of the American federal government, as the Founding Fathers understood it, was to mitigate conflicts and foster compromises between the factions—a difficult task for which rhetoric in general and deliberative rhetoric in particular was needed. Rhetoric, one could say, is the art of reaching a skillful agreement between two sides—such a task is essential to the functioning of a democracy.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of early American society was that the “chosen body of citizens,” whose stated duty was to oppose factionalism, became the enablers and creators of new factions—namely, political parties. Early parties, such as the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, claimed to oppose factions, but in fact created a schism in American politics, launching a series of personal attacks and a general “collapse of civility,” and of rhetoric.
The Founding Fathers didn’t predict the rise of political parties: they thought that politicians would help end factionalism, rather than perpetuating it. Because of the Founders’ error in judgment, Heinrichs suggests, American politics became increasingly corrupt and polarized, and rhetoric—the art of reducing polarization—began to die out.
In modern times, the schism in American politics probably isn’t as severe as it has been in the past (during the Civil War, for example). Nevertheless, American politics has become more and more “tribal,” to the point where people vote for their party no matter who the candidate is. The tribalism of American politics has destroyed deliberative debate as a means of enacting change. Too often, disagreements become mired in demonstrative rhetoric and the clash between different values. The problem with purely demonstrative arguing is that it’s polarizing. For example, when Democrats declared global warming a “moral issue,” Republicans began denying that climate change of any kind was occurring.
There’s no doubt that American politics has become increasingly polarized in the last twenty or thirty years—there hasn’t been a landslide presidential election since the 1980s, and Republican and Democratic voters rarely cross their party lines. In the ten years since Heinrichs published his book, American politics has become even more polarized than it was in the mid-2000s. As Heinrichs sees it, the error of contemporary politicians is to focus too exclusively on values and make concrete solutions secondary to these values. In doing so, politicians further polarize the conversation and pressure other politicians, and voters, to take sides with their party.
Aristotle argued that virtue is “a matter of character, concerned with choice, lying in a mean.” As values become more polarized, the concept of “lying in a mean” has become rare in American politics. The cure for polarization and tribalism must be deliberative rhetoric, bringing extremes into a “moderate orbit.” Heinrichs argues that America must revive rhetoric and teach its citizens to think in terms of moderation and future-tense decisions. Even now, AP English courses are emphasizing rhetoric, and teachers are including rhetoric in their curricula. If people learned to think and speak rhetorically, then politicians will speak more intelligently and make more of an effort to seem disinterested. People everywhere would “actually start talking—and listening—to one another.”
Deliberative rhetoric, by its very nature, encourages two opposing sides to reach a reasonable compromise. This compromise is by no means morally right; however, regardless of its morality, it moves things forward by giving both sides some (though not all) of what they want. In the end, Thank You for Arguing suggests that progress and cooperation may be more important than stubborn fealty to one’s moral values: if all Americans were well-versed in the art of the rhetoric, then perhaps politicians would be more willing to compromise and reach across the aisle.
Heinrichs encourages his readers to “foster the great rhetorical revival.” When talking politics, they should use rhetorical techniques, but also focus on the future and use the language of decisions. Parents should talk to their kids’ teachers about adding rhetoric to the curriculum. As a father, Heinrichs has always encouraged his children to use rhetoric. In doing so, he helped his children see through advertising techniques and become more interested in politics and the news. To this day, Heinrichs’s children’s arguing drives him crazy—but it also makes him proud.
Heinrichs ends his book with a strong rhetorical flourish. He reiterates some of his most important themes—in particular, the importance of studying and practicing rhetoric in 21st century America. He reminds readers of his own good character—the way he supports and encourages his children. Finally, he appeals to the reader’s sense of pathos by bring up his pride in his child. All in all, Heinrichs doesn’t just discuss rhetorical techniques in Thank You for Arguing—he uses them to make an entertaining and persuasive argument for the continued relevance and moral importance of rhetoric.