Rhetorical criticism of “Cities, not rhetoric, making America great by embracing change”

This blog post engages in a case study — a rhetorical criticism — of an article that demonstrates widespread contemporary misuse and misunderstanding of the word “rhetoric” and why this misuse is culturally counterproductive and regressive.

Today I came across this article via my Google Alert for content using the key word “rhetoric”:

Dear authors, I respect your aims and goals, but I take issue with what your headline is implying and perpetuating about “rhetoric.” Arguably cities (not rhetoric) are the focus of your article, but the article makes its point by assuming that cities do not use “rhetoric.”

I would like to challenge this assumption with broader and more positive definitions of rhetoric that date back to ancient Greece and Rome and were commonly accepted throughout Western history and culture … until relatively recently.

I ask you, how could “Cities” WITHOUT the aid of any “rhetoric,” make any nation great by embracing change?

I argue that it is illogical to imagine that it is possible to accomplish anything great as a community or leader without the aid of rhetoric.

Likewise, it is illogical for activists or writers or leaders to blame “rhetoric” for our ills while using rhetoric to advocate positive change.

Background to my analysis

It has long puzzled and irked me to see the word “rhetoric” dragged through the mud in popular discourse. Only recently have I come to the conclusion that this discourse is not merely annoying to rhetoricians like myself who care about retaining our historical rhetorical traditions … it is broadly pernicious to society, and I should put my foot down and say so.

I have just written a blog post called Let’s not slander Rhetorica about how many journalistic headlines today put “rhetoric” in a bad light and why this is a disturbing trend.

In a nutshell, this denigration and narrowing of the word “rhetoric” is damaging to society because it blinds us to the existence and necessity of good rhetoric, hinders us from honoring good rhetoric for its wisdom, artistry and appropriateness to occasion, and makes it seem socially, politically and economically unimportant to teach people how to practice good rhetoric.

First of all, what is rhetoric?

In my previous post I provided many definitions of rhetoric, but I’ll bring out two here to present it succinctly, since it’s a necessary foundation of my argument. Let’s look at how rhetoric was defined for 2500 years before it gradually came under a darker and darker shadow of ill repute over the past century:

  1. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher who wrote the first book called Rhetoric, is defined as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” In other words, rhetoric is a human ability or talent, and we use it to find out how to persuade people in any situation, any environment.
  2. According to Quintilian, the most eminent professor of rhetoric under the first Roman Emperors, “Rhetoric is the art of speaking well” or “…good man speaking well.” This art of rhetoric is the art that belongs to a good man, or ethical person.  If you want to speak well, and accomplish good things with your speech, you will use rhetoric to accomplish that aim. Studying rhetoric is desirable; it will make you more effective, helping you as a good person “speak well.”

In the centuries since Aristotle and Quintilian, until very recent times, rhetoric was taught and treasured as one of the seven liberal arts essential for citizens’ and leaders’ education. Of course, throughout history people often complained that certain uses of rhetoric could be bad, and there have been campaigns to reform the rhetorical habits of a culture. Nevertheless, well educated people across cultures, languages, and time periods understood that the art of rhetoric itself was essential for solving problems, making decisions, and the building of communities by good people.

Our cultural amnesia of this tradition of rhetoric in our educational system and popular culture is at the root of many social ills, as I argue in my conclusion to this analysis.

The headline and opening sentence

Although the article’s headline declares “Cities, not rhetoric…” [are] making America great, the word “rhetoric” is used nowhere in its content.  Therefore, it’s not a complete argument.  The headline claims it is “NOT rhetoric” that is making America great, and yet nothing in the article proves that no American “rhetoric” is accomplishing this, while “cities” are accomplishing it without the aid of any rhetoric whatsoever.

This is the article’s opening sentence, which in some way explains what the headline refers to as “rhetoric”:

In these rapidly changing times, there is a tendency for political demagogues to capitalize on fear — blame immigrants or the “other” — in order to harness support for policies that will deepen, rather than solve the very real problems at hand.

Okay, I agree, that’s a negative USE of rhetoric that we are often seeing today (and the article alludes directly to Donald Trump), but please, please, distinguish negative uses of rhetoric from rhetoric itself.  

No, I’m not just splitting hairs. It’s an important distinction, not a merely verbal quibble.

It’s a distinction that can disable any effort toward “making America [or any nation] great by embracing change.”

This headline and opening sentence participates in perpetuating the problem, not acknowledging the solution.

The logic of the headline and opening sentence are based on a widespread fundamental misunderstanding and ignorance (lack of knowledge) of what rhetoric really is and should be in civic life.

Rhetoric cannot be limited to the use of fearmongering by demagogues. As Cicero argued in ancient Rome, we need good rhetoric, rhetoric united with “wisdom,” to unmask and replace bad rhetoric. We need good rhetoric to build cities and countries.

Yet the writers imply by such use of the word “rhetoric” that cities and countries can be built, and articles can be written, without the use of any rhetoric.

Thus good rhetoric is rendered invisible, while only bad rhetoric gets identified as “rhetoric.”

Of course, the authors are not the only respectable people in today’s world who may be unaware of the broad and positive meaning and use of rhetoric, and what’s at stake in intentionally, or unintentionally, slandering rhetoric by using the naked word “rhetoric” to name and describe only bad rhetoric.

Undermining rhetoric itself undermines the art by which all good writers of articles and leaders of organizations do their best work. Dear Clarence Anthony and Brooks Rainwater (authors),

  • Did you use any rhetoric to inform or persuade the public in your article? I am pretty sure you did, as shown below in the analysis of quotations.  If you believe your article to be an attempt to show a better way to make America great by “embracing change” of the type you describe, then you’re using rhetoric to persuade people of a better way. You’re using rhetoric to persuade people that cities make America great.
  • Do you ever use rhetoric to inform or persuade anyone in your organizational roles?  The authors of the article are “Executive Director of the National League of Cities (NLC)” and “Senior Executive and Director at the NLC’s Center for City Solutions.” I believe you must have used rhetoric in your roles, since all leaders of organizations use rhetoric on a daily basis. Even in this public blog / news post, you are acting in your professional roles. People will read your article in the light of your institutional roles and rhetorical mandates: why would these particular leaders of these organizations want to praise “cities” for making America great?

Therefore, dear authors, you are indebted to rhetoric when you use your “faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle) as you write an article or lead an organization. Your use of rhetoric, whether conscious or not, is intrinsic to your ability to be “good [people] speaking well” (Quintilian).

A writer or speaker should avoid denigrating one’s own (hopefully) ethical and effective art of rhetoric as they blame others’ unethical or less effective use of rhetoric. As you point a finger to accuse others of using rhetoric, four fingers are pointing back at you.

Quotes from the article: Good rhetoric

Despite its headline, the article uses some powerful rhetorical techniques and discusses rhetorical principles and values. The content of the article can easily be used to prove the opposite tenet of the assumption in its headline and first sentence.

The article’s arguments can also be used to teach that good “rhetoric” (as it has been defined for two millenia) is necessary for establishing cities and nations.

Indeed, I am praising the article I’ve just critiqued because it praises good civic rhetoric and attempts to engage in good rhetoric, even if it does not call these things rhetoric.

However, it’s unfortunate that the article does not identify its own strategies and depictions of good actions for what they are: Good rhetoric.  It is not just silent about rhetoric, but it actively distances itself from anything called “rhetoric.” It thus participates in the erasure and denial of good rhetoric, not just the denigration of rhetoric itself.


“We are Americans, and we don’t go backwards; we move forward. We expand opportunity we don’t constrict it.”

This is a rhetorical appeal to the collective ethos of Americans. It also engages in flattering the audience into believing the best of themselves, paving the way to encourage audience agreement with other claims in the article. This is a common device in good rhetoric. It works to encourage people to live up to their highest ideals of themselves by portraying that this is already part of their native character, not something new they need to adopt, not something difficult but natural.

Therefore, this article uses ethical rhetoric to build the ideal of “America.” Admit it, we need rhetoric to bring out the best in each other and persuade people to cooperate.


“America (and much of the world) has seen white men at the pinnacle of power for centuries — but minorities, women, working class populations, the LGBTQ community, and others that were not included in the narrative arc of America would beg to differ that times past are those that we should re-create.”

Minorites and women have made their cases clear through the strategic use of activist rhetoric. Sometimes they have used rhetorical symbols and symbolic actions like parades and images to inspire new ways of thinking, not just words that directly aimed to change laws and policies.

Interestingly, many of the efforts of activists have been aimed at shifts in the use of language, such as the positive and proud use of the word “queer” and the change of gendered terminology such as “alderman” to “city councillor” and “policeman” to “police officer.” Their rhetoric has enabled the article’s writers to use the acronym LGBTQ without puzzling their audience about what it means.

Therefore, this article praises others who have used rhetoric well for ethical purposes. i.e. to build inclusivity in a diverse society.

The authors praise cities for embracing these changes, and yet the title implies that no rhetoric has been involved in persuading citizens to embrace these changes.


“In recent decades, city leaders have increasingly become the champions of the future, and this future is one of inclusion and prosperity. Leaders at the local level aren’t building walls, they are tearing them down. In cities, we know that a diverse and representative society is an economically competitive society.”

“Tearing down walls” is not just descriptive of a physical action, but is primarily metaphorical of what civic leaders are doing with their policies and words to support values.  They are using rhetoric to create a society that values inclusion. They must use a cause-effect argument to show that inclusivity leads to prosperity and that prosperity is associated with a certain structure of economic competitiveness.

Therefore, the article’s praise of mayors is indirectly praising their rhetoric in building inclusive cities and arguing that certain actions will lead to economic prosperity.


“In cities, ideas move from the ground up, with community input one of the most valuable commodities that we have. A wide variety of voices are listened to, and while people get angry, and even yell and scream at times, it is not reflective of the perpetual anger and angst that we see in national politics.”

Therefore, this article is hinting that communities need a method and way to handle heated emotions in rhetorical discussion and debate. Apparently cities know how to do this but larger levels of government do not.  It may be because of the design and rules of engagement that structure these cities’ rhetorical forums.  Hopefully this will make people curious enough to investigate if this is true, and the rhetorical strategies by which cities succeed.

Even if this is statistically true of cities, the article has not proven that only non-rhetorical elements, and no rhetorical factors at all are responsible for cities’ success at inclusive, productive debate. Rhetorical factors may include rules of discussion and language use during heated debates, and the role of a moderator or chair of debates.


“Mayors are working hard to create solutions at home. City leaders aren’t trying to come up with the philosophical underpinnings of whether or not we should move forward. Cities move forward.”

This article is once again engaging in praise of Mayors and cities in order to build its argument.

Good mayors and “city leaders” are portrayed as forward-thinking actors rather than philosophical thinkers. Perhaps the bad “rhetoric” of national politics entails “trying to come up with the philosophical underpinnings of whether or not we should move forward.”

But how could it be possible that rhetoric is not involved at all when cities and mayors debate (sometimes angrily) about how exactly their city should be “moving forward”?

My counterargument: Rhetoric and public action go hand in hand

I take issue with the false assumption (implicit in this article, and in many others like it) of the division between rhetoric and public action, good or bad.

This is a false dichotomy that is not healthy for the development of good civic rhetoric.

Good civic rhetoric is the foundation of all good civic action and ethical, sustainable economic development.

Think of rhetoric and action in the long-term perspective.  Words relate to collective and public deeds before, during, and/or after the deeds.

  • BEFORE: In public life, words are needed to pave the way for deeds and make a space for them to occur and have meaning.  Discussions and meetings lead to decisions and plans. Announcements tell the public that a future event will take place.
  • DURING: During public action, words are often involved in enacting reality and enabling action to occur efficiently. For example, a speech and/or piece of writing declares that a policy is now in place. Signs declare where construction is occurring and for how long, and instruct people how to drive and walk as safely and efficiently as possible in and around the site. See what linguistic theorist Austin has said about “illocutionary acts,” acts that take place through words.
  • AFTER: Words are necessary to explain, report, praise, or blame public deeds. Consider news articles, annual reports, investigations, celebrations.

That’s accountability. Rhetoric is needed to plan, to execute, and then to report on collective and public action. Even public celebrations of past action reaffirm good civic deeds and reestablish the values that they are based on. When we correct wrong past actions, we also reaffirm social values and openly castigate wrongheaded values and unwise choices.

Can you think of any good public “action” by a mayor or city that does not involve any prior rhetoric to pave the way for it nor any concurrent rhetoric to support an action while it’s happening?

Many actions by civic leaders are in themselves symbolic and rhetorical. In the public eye, even silent gestures of a public leader can be interpreted as rhetorical communication, such as cutting a ribbon, gesturing a certain way in greeting; wearing a certain hat or color or cut of clothing that has cultural significance. Rhetorical communication is in the eye of the beholder as much as it is in the intention of the communicator.

Looking down the chain of command from a mayor to an everyday worker, rhetoric is necessary to communicate across and within every group. Even if you’re excavating dirt for a new building, your construction company has to communicate well internally and externally in order to execute its task in an efficient, safe and law-abiding manner.

We all know that words should match deeds. I think anyone who holds politicians accountable for their promises would agree with that truism. Even in everyday private life, simple promises like “I’ll be there at 8 o’clock” have expected accompanying actions; good words should lead to good action. When we see action, we interpret it in the light of previous words, and we often use words to describe, criticize or praise past action for its consistency with statements. Thus action is interpreted in the context of rhetoric.

This makes cries like “action, not rhetoric!” or “no more rhetoric!” quite illogical and counterproductive to civil society. These are cliches that must be retired if we truly wish to “move forward” as the authors argue.

If we truly believed this false dichotomy between words and deeds, we’d have to make a plan, create a policy or have a discussion on a controversial issue without making any reasonable arguments whatsoever to convince anyone who doubts or disagrees or does not understand.

Without rhetoric, we’d have to resort to force rather than reasonable persuasion. Shut down the debates. Silence dissident voices. Push through the policies. Design policies to coerce cooperation. Don’t permit any reporting that might criticize the actions that were done.

Therefore, it’s dangerous to democracy to believe that rhetoric is just a waste of time or downright harmful.

No, we really do need to acknowledge and foster rhetoric in and around our action if we value freedom and democracy.

In an ideal society built on voluntary mutual cooperation rather than force, words are the counterparts of action, and they are two sides of the same coin, not opposites that contradict each other. If you want any degree of participatory democracy, these are not alternatives; you cannot choose rhetoric OR action, you have to choose the rhetoric and the actions that work together. As long as you are talking about people acting together willingly, or individuals making decisions for other people’s best interests while consulting them, you can’t have deeds without words.

Wherever communication is involved in persuading and informing people in a community to accept or enact changes, “rhetoric” is involved. Cities are not rhetoric-free zones. No level of government can function well without good rhetoric. Rhetoric of any sort is inevitable and essential. Bad rhetoric happens. Good rhetoric is imperative.

Conclusions and implications

Rhetorical dysfunction is a symptom and cause of social and political dysfunction. In our current Western philosophy of good government, bad rhetoric disintegrates communities or causes conflicts or oppression, whether at the civic level or national level.

Good rhetoric is needed to unmask the aims, arguments, assumptions, methods, and effects bad rhetoric. It is necessary for us to engage in “rhetorical criticism” in news journalism, essays, blogs, and conversations — rhetorical criticism (and praise, whenever deserved) helps us uncover truth, examine doubts, see issues from diverse perspectives, and distinguish the different characteristics of good and bad rhetoric.

Good and reasonable rhetoric is at the core of good leadership as well as good citizenship. Therefore good rhetoric, whether by cities or by national leaders, is what can make America (or any nation) great in the face of all sorts of economic and cultural changes.

Of course, rhetoric does not offer a recipe for instant power and success: If you use rhetoric well, you’ll never succeed in persuading everyone or eradicating all dissent, since people still have free will and even the most eloquent and wise words could be ignored or misinterpreted. But at least you will have made a good effort at building consensus and examining an issue from all sides. If your audiences are well educated in rhetoric, they will be able to sift what you say and respond intelligently and hopefully, ethically.

It is necessary for good “rhetors” (speakers, writers) to perpetually explain, model and adapt good civic rhetoric for the future as circumstances continue to change.

I challenge all good rhetors of the future to reverse this disturbing trend. If you are truly using rhetoric for good purposes, then you should take proud ownership of the word and art of “rhetoric.” Participate in removing the stains that have been cast upon rhetoric itself, and thus participate in explicit rhetorical (re)modeling, education and social transformation.

~ ~

Want some tips on how to improve rhetoric by renewing the study and reputation of rhetoric itself? See the concluding list of my earlier article, Let’s not slander Rhetoric(a).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s