Once upon a time, in a place now known as “the birthplace of democracy,” debate between men whose primary interest was in using discourse to expand their knowledge not demonstrate their superior intellect revolved around rhetoric. There was an inherent understanding that the way an argument was constructed was equally important to the merits of an argument.
Though this recognition is now lost, rhetoric is a crucial part of modern political discourse. The choice to be pedantically logical and analytic versus grandiosely emotional and empathetic is hugely significant to swaying public opinion and directing the outcome of an investigation.
Democrats participating in Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi clearly understood this. There was a marked difference in the approach they took to questioning the former Secretary State and the approach taken by Republicans.
Democrats engaged in sophistry- the practice of constructing an argument that on its face seems logical but upon closer examination is not. They forwarded a conclusion- that the Committee is a hyper-partisan entity focused on destroying Clinton- and constructed emotional impulses into an argument, so narrow in scope it ignored any facts but what supported its judgment.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the Committee, focused his opening statements on the supposed persecution of Clinton, playing clips of Republican statements on the committee’s work and bemoaning the waste of taxpayer money the committee, which he claimed only rehashed ground covered by previous investigations. There seems to be logic here, but this is only because of the narrowed scope of his argument. It ignores the facts that much of the Committee’s records have yet to been made public, so there is no objective way of knowing whether other testimony revolves around Clinton. He also advances a false premise- that the Committee’s report is a less comprehensive rehashing of other agencies’ findings. The Committee’s investigation is ongoing; they have not finalized their report, unlike other completed investigations.
Cummings uses pathos and ethos together. He is incensed at the supposed partisan persecution of the committee, but he relies on his credential as a member of Congress, on the assumption that he is a completely impartial investigator only trying to see justice done. He sets this at odds with Republicans who are trying to advance an agenda, perverting their duty to the public. Central to all of this is his personality. What facts he relies on are filtered through his own judgment. This is sophistic because it makes his person synonymous with his questioning. One cannot separate his sympathies from his testimony from his personal feelings about Clinton.
This is clear in the sympathies and excuses offered up to Clinton, painted as a beleaguered innocent dragged before the Committee, by not only Cummings but other Democrats.
Contrast this with the approach taken by Republicans, which was much more open and logical. Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) set the tone for his party’s questioning by making it clear that the Committee was not interested in Clinton; she was merely a component to the events of the Benghazi attack because of her official role. Gowdy very smartly buoyed his claims to impartiality by asserting Democrats would attempt to make the questioning about political electoral interests- a rather prescient assertion as it turned out.
Gowdy and others focused on contradictions in previous testimony. They cited evidence from source documents, primarily recently recovered Clinton emails, and directed their questions towards seeming inaccuracies between empirical statements outlined there and elsewhere. In this way they backed Clinton into a corner over extemporaneous assertions that the attack was a spontaneous protest of a video and not a pre-planned terrorist attack. Confronted with indisputable email evidence, authored by her, Clinton actually resurrected the video excuse, further weakening her already tenuous position.
Unfortunately for Republicans, emotion is often stronger than reason since it produces a much stronger, immediate impulse. And in a highly manipulated environment that carefully selects the facts it advances, which Democrats are exploiting in only releasing parts of the Benghazi Committee’s records, it is even easier to advance myths. Whether the more consistent comportment of fact-reliant Republicans will bear out in time is up to the American people to decide, but in the meantime, it would be a mistake to look too little at these rhetorical strategies; they go a long way towards revealing the character of elected representatives.