The most basic description of the term ‘politics’ is the activities undertaken by a state’s citizens and, resultantly, it has been a part of civilian life for centuries. Ancient greek philosophers believed politics to be a science in which we should all participate in concluding that those who do not are bad people or above humanity (Aristotle, 1992). On the contrary, politics in the 21st century is perhaps seen simply as a parliamentary matter to be discussed by those who hold governmental roles. This holds particularly true in the West whereby citizens lack of enthusiasm in politics is demonstrated by voter turnout in national elections which was 68.8% in the 2017 UK general election (Parliament. House of Commons, 2017). Whilst it is the highest turnout since 1997, it is still a far-cry from the Aristotelian vision that ‘man is a political animal'(1992: 1253aI). In the US, voters are continually alienated from formal government which is impacting upon political participation (Innes & Booher, 2004). Furthermore, on a more international scale, politics is seen as an activity which involves bureaucratic international organisations whose decision-making lies with the global elite (Barnett and Finnemore, 2004). With this in mind, perhaps clear, shared understandings are more suitable in a time where citizens are becoming more disengaged with politics opposed to rhetoric, debate, argument and conflict upon which political philosophy is often based. This essay will incorporate the pros and cons of the two forms of debate which scholars deem to be in existence: substantive and academic (Omelicheva, 2007); both are relevant in the political sphere. In addition, there will be two interpretations of the word ‘conflict’: the approach used in, for example, marxism whereby conflict is between different groups of people, i.e. the social, class struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat (Rummel, 1976) and a more Machiavellian understanding by which conflict is war between states for preservation and expansionary measures (Sobek, 2005). Whilst clear, consensual understandings may be more fitting for the guiding political norm, the majority of political thinkers use the latter conception in their theories thus this essay will analyse the components of the latter conception, basing the analyses on various thinkers’ philosophies to determine their usefulness in contrast to clear, shared understandings. Nonetheless, there has been a surge in political movements in the present day which invoke clarity in their understanding, for example, feminism and populism. As such, these broad movements are perhaps more suited to today’s political climate rather than the complicated, multifaceted and often contradictory political philosophy used by thinkers in the western canon of political thought.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion in speech or writing and has been a part of political doctrine since the formation of the ancient polis. Political speeches allow the speaker to assert oneself over the opposition in order to generate specific policies, to gain followers and to acquire power (Reisigl, 2008). Aristotle (1991) conveys that rhetoric is useful because just ends have a tendency to prevail over their opposites and so the act of persuasion will result in the best outcome for the simple reason that humans are inherently good and their goodness will ensure the most utilitarian outcome. In contrast to Aristotle’s notion that humans have a natural tendency to do what is good and just, Niccolo Machiavelli famously declares people as ‘ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers,’ (1961: 96). The power of rhetoric suggests that humans by nature are, in fact, ‘fickle’ because individuals with extremist views have acquired state leadership. Arguably, one of history’s most talented persuasive speakers in politics is Adolf Hitler whose aptitude for public speaking won over German citizens and enabled the far-right Nazi Party to go into parliament. As technology has advanced throughout the twentieth century, we have seen how the power of rhetoric has influenced history as it has enabled us to look back on particularly significant speeches made by key political figures in this era such as Hitler’s Reichstag Speech of 1941 in which Germany declares war against the US and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ whereby King’s use of rhetoric strives for racial equality in the Southern US states. Hence, the use of rhetoric by political figures can do a lot of good for humanity as well as bad. The success of these speeches can be put down to the careful selection of language used in order to generate pathos which Aristotle claims is an extremely effective tool in rhetoric (Charteris-Black, 2014). In addition, the complexity of human behaviour is anti-positivist because the lure of extremist rhetoric lies in the fact it is easier to believe passionately in a value or cause without regard to probabilistic evidence and vigorously tested scientific fact (Gutmann, 2007). Anti-positivism highlights the potential danger of rhetoric in democracies for this reason and why extremism sometimes prevails.
Omelicheva (2007) defines substantive debate as real-world rational decision-making and is a process that takes place in a deliberative assembly under strict procedures. In politics, it may involve discussion between two agents who hold different opinions on a certain matter which is debated and then audience members or members of the public vote in accordance with who they agree with most. Substantive debate gives politicians the opportunity to effectively and clearly argue their point in appropriate conditions. For example, debates regarding general elections may be televised and broadcast as they require members of the public to vote. Nonetheless, scholarship suggests that televised debates have less of an impact on either helping voters decide which way they should vote or voter participation than other elements (Hillygus and Jackman, 2003). Voter behaviour tends to be much more deep-rooted and long-term in nature and depends more on sociological, economic and historical factors (Stoetzel, 1955; Nieuwbeerta, 1996) unlikely to be changed by a debate which people who exhibit a strong sense of partisanship and party identification may deem too trivial to be effective (Bartels, 2000). Nonetheless, the possibility of parliamentary candidates to debate in the first place is a key indicator of the existence of a democracy as they are used as a tool in order to gain citizens’ votes. Academic debate is a type of instruction which allows people to make an informed judgement (Inoue, 1996). It enables students to enrich their knowledge by participating; it does not exist simply for those involved to either win or lose. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle acknowledges that all activity must have a an ultimate aim and this telos must be intrinsically good, he uses the example of health being the telos for medicine (Aristotle, 2009). Through academic debate, the just ends that are destined to be achieved in Aristotle’s philosophy are abundant; Strait and Wallace (2008) argue that the improvement of research and persuasion techniques and education are simply not enough to do it justice…….
For certain political philosophies, such as marxism, and the political thinkers associated with them, conflict plays a major role in their thinking. In marxism, there is conflict between the ruling class and the proletariat as the bourgeoisie exploits the workers. Additionally, anarchist thinkers incorporate conflict in a similar way except such conflict occurs between the State and it’s citizens. If the notion of conflict is discouraged in political thought then this discredits these two prominent political theories who’s philosophy is based on conflict and the need for revolution in order to address it. Bakunin (2017) argues that anarchism is the only means of attaining absolute liberty; a concept which forms the backbone of liberal democracies and the thing that citizens who unwillingly live in authoritarian regimes desire most. Nonetheless, Bakunin’s concept of liberty is that it cannot truly exist alongside the State which he describes as ‘the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity’; it is this conflict which must be overcome in order to attain absolute liberty. In addition, Machiavelli’s pragmatism is revealed in The Prince as he argues that conflict is an inevitable part of statecraft and that war cannot be avoided; this concept is developed through his description of the incomparability between ‘a man who is armed and a man who is not’ (1961:88). As previously mentioned, Machiavelli describes the cynicism of human nature which makes conflict unavoidable. As such, this supports the international relations theory of realism in that it is assumed that war is a naturally occurring event. Since realism is one of the most prominent of the IR theories (McGlinchey, 2017), to say that conflict should be discouraged impacts upon the legitimacy of international relations as a field of political science. To further support the concept that conflict is a necessary part of statecraft in politics, other more modern thinkers such as Carl Schmitt agree with Machiavelli in his philosophy because, in realist terms, politics is about the struggle for power and the survival or expansion of states. Schmitt (2008) contends that war is good and that politics cannot exist without it and his advocation for war highlights the fact that it is not just a concept that belongs to the renaissance and it is very much prevalent post-twentieth century too; president Donald Trump’s foreign policy measures are arguably realist (Mills and Rosefield, 2016).
Whilst rhetoric, debate, argument and conflict form the basis of political philosophy for many thinkers, this is not the case for all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1988), a contract theorist, expresses his belief that in an ideal republic, citizens must act in accordance with the general will, and only then will they be truly free. Younkins (2002) understands it as a concept which exists to serve the public interest opposed to the private and surpasses all other wills in its importance. What distinguishes the general will from other political concepts is that it is a collective notion which differs to the wills of individuals and groups which are often contradictory (Munro, 2013). Like Aristotle, Rousseau argues that justice will prevail over unjustness however he believes that this will only happen if citizens and governments alike act in conformance with the general will. Hence, Rousseau believes the general will to be a clear, undisputed term which all laws should be written in accordance with. Nonetheless, whilst Rousseau acknowledges that the general will is consensual and something everyone should abide by, some academics find Rousseau’s ambivalence towards governmental systems unsettling (Woolner, 2008). He pertains that the general will fits in well with the democratic model whose freedom of expression, liberty and voting rights provide citizens with the most effective means of government yet he argues that democracy is only suitable within a small society. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how the general will can be legitimised in an aristocracy or monarchy which Rousseau deems to be more suitable systems of government for a larger populace because the power shifts from citizens who follow the social contract to the individual and hence rule by the individual means that private interests will take control over the general will which sees that society benefits as a whole. Furthermore, if the general will is as uncontested a term as Rousseau claims then surely there should be more clarity in the way that clear governmental systems can be fabricated from it.
In addition, the 21st century appears to be a time in which clearly defined political movements influenced by a number of individuals have more of a powerful impact upon political doctrine than a small part of a treatise , i.e. the power of rhetoric displayed in Aristotle’s works.
This indicates that the sexist, racist and classist norms incorporated by the majority of traditional thinkers are no longer thought to be relevant in the 21st century and hence
In conclusion, it is difficult to envisage how clear, shared understandings can be established without debate and argument taking place first; surely no consensus can be found without any disagreement occurring in order to establish what the opinion of the majority is.
Furthermore, the question suggests that rhetoric, debate, argument and conflict cannot exist in politics without one another and, obviously, this is not the case; the components of the question can exist independent of each other. Additionally, the question suggests that the latter conception is unclear; rhetoric, argument, debate and conflict all have the potential to be both clear and unclear.
In addition, as Machiavelli pertains that conflict arises due to the very nature of humankind, then it cannot be discouraged because it is embedded in our disposition. Also, politics is so broad a subject made up of many different fields so various conceptions may be better suited to some fields of politics than others. For example, debate is perhaps better suited to an academic environment in which the participants are able broaden their knowledge and strengthen their argumentative skills opposed to a televised parliamentary debate for a general election in which potentially untrue proposed policies could misinform impressionable viewers who do not use other methods of obtaining information about a candidate and their party, for example, by reading a party’s manifesto.
The theoretical nature of this essay also makes it difficult to gauge whether political norms should be based on the first or second part of the question. This is because the political thinkers used have such different outlooks on the state, the nature of humankind and citizen contribution to civic life, to name a few. Therefore, whilst conflict forms a major part of Machiavellian philosophy in which he deems it unavoidable, for others, such as Rousseau, the focus is more on civil society opposed to interstate relations and hence the discouragement of conflict in terms of Rousseau’s philosophy is less intrusive than it would be to Machiavelli or Schmitt.