SALT LAKE CITY — In 2012, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, running for re-election, bought ads to promote one of her rivals.
It wasn’t a mistake, but a shrewd intervention into a three-way Republican primary that would decide who McCaskill, a Democrat, would face in the general election. She put money into the candidate that she thought would be the easiest to beat; he won the primary, and McCaskill held onto the Senate seat.
Was the strategy, which McCaskill later wrote about in a memoir, unethical?
That’s the sort of conversation that Peter Loge wishes more Americans would have.
An associate professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Loge is the director of a new initiative called the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, which seeks to improve the tone of campaigns and political speech. He’s also edited a new book on the topic, which will be released in August.
Loge is a Democrat who worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, among other elected officials, and in the Obama administration. He believes that America suffers from an erosion in civility concurrent with a declining interest in rhetoric, or graceful persuasive speech.
While there is a place for fiery speech in the public square, “Not everything can happen in all caps,” Loge said. But elegant and thoughtful rhetoric, what one scholar called “truth, and its artful presentation,” is usually taught to English students, not those majoring in political science.
Loge spoke with the Deseret News recently about the project and what he hopes it will accomplish, as well as who he believes is doing political speech right. (Hint: One person is from Utah.) The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: This seems like an especially good year to have a project focusing on ethics in political messaging. How did this come about?
Peter Loge: When I joined the faculty at GWU, they asked what I wanted to teach, and I said campaign ethics. Then I went to Google and started looking for a syllabus, and nothing showed up, so I panicked. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll find a book. Surely someone has written a book on campaign ethics.’ There were books on journalism ethics, business ethics, medical ethics. But I only found a few about ethics in political communication, the most recent of which was about 15 years old.
This is problematic, because more and more people are majoring in political communication, and going into lobbying and organizing. It’s not just candidates; it’s groups like the NRA and Black Lives Matter and the Sierra Club. We’re teaching people how to be civically engaged, but apparently we’re not giving them an ethical foundation.
DN: What are the core questions you are asking?
PL: What ethical responsibilities do people who engage in political communications have, and who are they to? The boss? The party platform? Your ideal notion of democracy? Is it to winning, if I’ve been hired to get my guy elected or get a bill passed? What is it?
DN: What are the consequences for not having these kinds of conversations? Are we seeing them now?
PL: If we don’t work to make (political communication) as good as we can, as ethical as we can and as respectful as we can, it makes governing worse, it makes governing harder and it undermines faith in democracy.
One of the interesting features of democracy is that it works because we agree that it works. There is no divine right of kings; this is not a military dictatorship. We agree to do what we all agree should happen next. We may continue to argue about it and we may not like it, but we continue to engage in that conversation. And if we don’t take that conversation seriously it begins to unravel.
DN: You have said that there has been a decline in the quality of persuasive speech in American politics. Why is that the case?
PL: Politics, rhetoric and ethics were all the same course for Plato and Cicero. But over time, these subjects drifted apart. Rhetoric used to be part of the educational canon; Jefferson and Madison, all those guys studied rhetoric. But rhetoric has now gone to English departments. Harvard University actually has an endowed chair of rhetoric, but it’s been occupied by a poet for more than a hundred years.
There was a conservative political intellectual named Richard Weaver in Chicago; he actually wrote a book about the ethics of rhetoric. He called rhetoric “truth, plus its artful presentation.” He said every time you speak, you are preaching, so you have responsibility in what you say, just as a faith leader does. Rhetoric is how we explain the world to each other, and how we get better and exist in that world as a result. It comes with tremendous ethical responsibilities.
But today, it’s like ‘How do I own the libs on Twitter? I’ll get on TikTok, or do a bumper sticker.’ Meanwhile, democratic institutions are under assault.
DN: Looking at the contemporary political stage, who do you think is doing political speech right?
PL: I do have a political leaning; I worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy and in the Obama administration, so I’ll say that upfront. But I do like Pete Buttigieg because he talked about aspirational American values, and he responded to questions in a way that showed he took the questions seriously and he took democracy seriously.
Congressman (Justin) Amash has taken a stand; I disagree with a lot of his policy positions, but he has said this is who I am, this is what I believe in, and I’m going to argue for it, because I have a set of values.
And I think Sen. (Mitt) Romney joining the Black Lives Matter march here in D.C was amazing. This is who Mr. Romney is. Again, I don’t agree with all of his policies, and I think he’s made some interesting political decisions, but there is no doubt that he has a set of core values about an ideal America that we can debate together.
DN: How do you plan to get this message out?
PL: The Project on Ethics in Political Communication is holding online events, not only to get people to talk about these issues, but also to create a content library that professors and students can draw on. (One panel discussion is scheduled for July 30 on Zoom.) We’re working with the University of Texas at Austin on case studies: This is the kind of thing that you will face in politics. What will you do? We don’t answer the question, but we raise it.
We also want to develop case studies with videos so when staff and consultants are thinking about their campaigns, in addition to thinking about what makes a good tweet or a good speech, they can also think about what’s the most ethical way to do that. We also have a book coming out in August, an edited volume called “Political Communication Ethics, Theory and Practice.”
At George Washington University, we produce an absurd amount of top political professionals. If we can get them to think about ethics now, when they are doing a commercial later, they might think, ‘Why are all the kids in this commercial white?’ Or they might think, ‘We are in the middle of a pandemic, why don’t we pause fundraising for a while?’
DN: How do you enforce ethical behavior?
PL: It’s really easy to be ethical if you know you’re going to win or you’re going to lose. But if you’re in a really tight race, and it’s a Saturday, you’re 10 days out, donors have dropped a million dollars into your campaign and you know they are counting on you — that’s when it’s hard to be ethical, when the stakes feel high.
So what we need to do is reward ethical behavior. You’ve got to create political incentives.
I’m under no illusion that this will work. Business leaders cheat. And we still make them take ethics classes. Lawyers cheat. And we still make them take ethics class to pass the bar. It can’t hurt. And it might help.