Emotion in American Political Rhetoric



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Commentators often warn of the threat posed by rhetoric that produces strong emotional reactions.  They point to the danger that emotional arousal will overwhelm reasoned discourse producing bad policy or even worse leading to political violence.  There are obvious cases where extremist rhetoric aroused strong emotions and tragic violence resulted. 

That is precisely what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017.  Extremist rhetoric also played a key role in leading to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.  It might seem from such cases that rhetoric producing strong emotional responses is always dangerous and should be avoided or attacked. 


However, the view that rhetoric producing a strong emotional response is inherently dangerous is, misguided.  People have rarely moved to action by reason alone.  It was not until Al Gore and other Global Warming activists learned to tap into emotion as well as reason that they were able to move public opinion.  Moreover, strong emotional reactions are often also quite rational.  There were good reasons for those who fought for Civil Rights, women’s rights, or gay rights to be angered by discrimination and energized when progress finally occurred.  Anyone who believes in values of equality and justice would be inspired by the life journey of John Lewis. 

Fortunately, there is a means of distinguishing between forms of rhetoric producing strong emotional reactions that are dangerous and those that are forces for societal reform.  Rhetoric that produces strong emotional reactions is not dangerous and often leads to useful social change when public reason and positive emotions are joined together but is quite dangerous when it produces negative emotions aimed at groups in society or is not linked to public policy.


From the end of World War II through Barack Obama’s two terms as president, those presidents and other political leaders who most skillfully used rhetoric to produce political change relied on a balance between reasoned policy analysis and retellings of the American Dream to produce positive emotions and an inclusive national identity. 

The two most notable (and effective) presidents in this period, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama presented similar quite optimistic visions of the nation’s most important political narrative, the American Dream, although they supported very different ideological approaches to government, pragmatic small government conservatism for Reagan and pragmatic more government liberalism for Obama. 


The ideological arguments of Reagan and Obama were combined with retellings of the American Dream that presented a patriotic, inclusive, and fundamentally optimistic vision of the nation’s history and future.  In so doing, they created strong positive emotional reactions about what it means to be an American.  Although their policies were quite different, their retellings of the American Dream and their focus on positive emotions, including patriotism and belief in creating a better, more inclusive America, were strikingly similar. 

Both Reagan and Obama saw the United States as defined not by power but by ideas.  Reagan once referred to the United States as “an empire of ideals” and Obama often tied the meaning of the nation to words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson spoke of “self-evident” truths and proclaimed a commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Both Reagan and Obama described a nation that was gradually becoming more inclusive, more open, and more welcoming to all Americans.  In the conclusion of one of his greatest speeches, his “Farewell Address,” Reagan described the nation as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” 

Obama’s vision of the nation was strikingly similar.  In his first major speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he energized his audience by speaking of shared values.  He said, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America: There is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America: There’s the United States of America.”  The rhetoric of Reagan and Obama made millions choke up or shed a tear of joy because they described a fundamentally optimistic vision of a nation that could gradually move closer to the ideals of the founding over time.

Reagan and Obama not only inspired millions with their retelling of the American Dream but presented coherent ideological messages in support of policies that they argued would move the nation closer to what Reagan called the “shining city on a hill” and what Obama referenced as the “audacity of hope.”  The point is that rhetoric combining strong policy arguments with the1 cultivation of positive emotions poses no dangers for the nation.  One can disagree with the policies espoused by either Reagan or Obama and still be inspired by their vision of the nation. 

The same point could be made about the greatest secular saint of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King expressed righteous anger against racism and the discriminatory policies that went with it, but he also spoke eloquently of his hope for a time when “his four little children,” “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  He concluded the “I Have a Dream Speech” with an affirmation of the need to make the American Dream a reality for all Americans, saying “Let freedom ring” across the nation. 


In contrast to rhetoric combining strong policy arguments with positive emotions, rhetoric that draws on negative emotions often untethered to public policy can be quite dangerous.  In particular, rhetoric that creates a sense of fear of or hatred for a group of fellow Americans or amplifies a sense of grievance can be dangerous for undercutting the ties that bind Americans together.  Candidate and then President Donald Trump often roused strongly negative emotions among core supporters by creating fear and then hatred of groups such as undocumented immigrants or transgender Americans.  Sometimes he created strongly negative emotions toward groups by focusing on problems that he tied to those groups.  He did this when he spoke about the Wuhan virus or in countless speeches when he spoke of crime in major cities.  On many occasions, he attacked Democrats for being socialists or even communists. 

In my book, The Rhetoric of Donald Trump, I describe dozens of instances in which he roused strongly negative emotions with such tactics.  In all of these cases, Trump amplified negative stereotypes in unfair and inaccurate ways.  Undocumented immigrants do not commit more crime per capita than native-born Americans.  Asian Americans were not responsible for the Covid crisis.  Crime during the Obama years was much lower than it had been in past decades and transgender Americans threaten no one. 


Rhetoric that produces strongly negative emotions aimed at groups of Americans is quite dangerous because it depicts these groups as Other than “real” Americans.  Such rhetoric led to a rise in violence against Asian Americ
ans during the pandemic and threatens American shared identity.  This type of rhetoric often progresses from the creation of fear of a group to hatred for the group, along with a sense of grievance against anyone who opposes such efforts.  The rhetoric of this type is almost always focused on emotional activation, not a policy change to confront a real problem.  Other than calling for the creation of a “great wall,” the Trump Administration proposed few policies to confront the mostly imaginary problems described in the rhetoric I mentioned. 


Boiled to its essence, rhetoric that links positive emotions to a real ideological agenda, either liberal or conservative, is rarely dangerous.  But rhetoric drawing on negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and grievance, especially if it involves attacks on groups of Americans and lacks a strong policy component, can be quite dangerous.  Such negative rhetoric played a key role in leading to the greatest catastrophe in American history, the Civil War, as well as was a prime driver that led to the rise of Hitler in Germany. 

Robert C. Rowland

Robert C. Rowland is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas who focuses on presidential rhetoric. He was the primary speaker on Reagan’s rhetoric at the Reagan Centennial and is the author of The Rhetoric of Donald Trump: Nationalist Populism and American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2021).

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