Political Rhetoric Syllabus

Below is a working draft of my course in political rhetoric. The course starts with the question of whether or not the “art of politics” can (or should) be taught, and ends with case studies. The case studies change depending on student interest and what’s in the news. The final exam is a political puzzle based on a local controversy in an imaginary small town to which the student retires after a long and successful career in Washington politics – the exam is legitimately fun.

I have removed the GW specific bits from the below.

Updated 12/15/17

Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric

Instructor: Peter Loge


“The world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly.”

  • Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the art of discovering all the available means of persuasion in a given situation.”  In this course we will look at both theories of persuasion – how people are led to the political conclusions they reach – and the application of those theories to current political debates. 

Grading is based on three short essays, a mid-term and final exam, a final paper, and class participation (quality – not quantity). 

The syllabus is a work in progress – you can count on additional readings being assigned and conversations taking unexpected directions.  Deadlines, however, are unlikely to change and no late papers will be accepted.


You will be required to write three short essays.  They should be no longer than 500 words.  I will stop reading at word 500, and grade you only on what I’ve read to that point.  No late papers will be accepted.

Each essay is worth 10% of your final grade (combined they are worth 30% of your final grade.)

Essay #1 is due at the start class on January 27 and should use Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explain a speech of your choosing.  You should select one element of Aristotle, such as enthymemes or proofs, to examine all or part of the speech.

Essay #2 is due February 17 and the topic should be an analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union address or the Republican response to the speech.  The analysis should be informed by the readings and discussions to that point in the course.  Your essay should demonstrate you can use a class reading and discussion to help explain a political artifact.

Essay #3 is due March 30.  You should write a rhetorical analysis of a political artifact (speech, commercial, etc) of your choosing.

Major Paper

For your final paper is due on April 20 at 6:10pm.  In it you should take a theory or model of argument, persuasion or rhetoric and apply it to a piece of political persuasion.  The model may come from class readings, but doesn’t have to.  The object of analysis can be a speech, commercial, film, or any other attempt to engage in political persuasion.  The goal of the paper is to explain the success, failure, or impact of an attempt to persuade using an analytic tool.

Generally these papers should be between 15 and 25 pages long.  I expect these papers to be top quality, that you will footnote your claims, cite your works, and that there will be no grammatical or spelling errors. You should strive for the approach and quality of the academic journal articles we will be reading throughout the semester.

This paper is worth 25% of your grade. No late papers will be accepted.

I encourage you to begin thinking about your final papers early in the semester and to consult with me along the way.  I am willing to read drafts, look at outlines, talk about ideas, and so forth.  Your lack of foresight, failure to anticipate a busy end of semester or otherwise prepare for things to go wrong at the last minute, are not my problem.

Your papers will be graded on how completely you have considered the material and the coherence and completeness of your argument.  Exceptional papers successfully tackle a new, tricky, or unexpected angle. More information on written assignment grading guidance is on Blackboard.


Anything that happens in class is fair game for exams.

The mid-term exam is on March 9, and will have a short answer and essay component.  The mid-term exam is worth 20% of your final grade.

The final exam will likely be a take-home (that may change, but historically final exams in this course have been take-homes).  You will likely be given a hypothetical political problem and be asked to solve it using what you have learned during the semester.

The final exam counts for 15% of your final grade (for a total of 40%).


Class participation is worth 10% of your final grade.  You are expected to constructively add to the conversation, which means you should do, think about, and be prepared to talk about the readings.  You are also expected to pay attention to the political world around you, think about it in terms of the course, and bring those insights to class.  You should have ideas and opinions, and be able to defend them.  Good participants listen well, don’t jump in at every opportunity, encourage others to speak, and help facilitate a robust conversation.

You may also be called on, whether or not you volunteer.  And, of course, you will be expected to answer the question and defend your position.

You will not be rewarded for just talking a lot.


You should own and read On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  We will never talk about this book in class, but everyone who writes (as you are required to do in this course, and will be in your professional lives) should read this book.  You would also do well to own and read Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Other readings are outlined in the course schedule below.  In addition, I may email articles or essays during the week that strike me as interesting – you should read and be prepared to discuss those as well.


You have several ethical responsibilities in this course.  This is a small group, in a small space, for several hours at a time, for 13 or so weeks.  For this endeavor to work for all of us, each of us needs to do the readings and think about them.  We must respect each other’s positions on the readings, and honor intellectual experiments (the “what if….” positions); that means people should be willing and able to change their minds, to defend their positions, and challenge the positions of others.  Critically, one should never confuse an argument with the person making the argument – positions are not people. This means you should not attack people, only their claims and do so based on reasoning rather than ad hominem.  Similarly, you should defend your positions as if they were ideas to be kicked around, not children to be protected.


I don’t take attendance, but you are responsible for everything that happens in class.  If you miss a session, you should find a colleague from whom to get notes, readings, etc.

There may be guest speakers, and the schedule of readings and discussion may change.

You can call or email any time, but calling before 8am and after 10pm will likely do you more harm than good.


Jan 17             Intro to course/Lecture

Jan 24             Aristotle

Aristotle’s Rhetoric  Book I, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Book II, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 available at

http://rhetoric.eserver.org/aristotle/ and elsewhere.

Jan 31             First Essay Due

Discuss your essays and the morality of attempting to teach “the art of politics.”

“Protagoras” by Plato.  Available at http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_plato_protag_1.htm and elsewhere

Feb 7               Discuss Weaver

Excerpts from Richard Weaver as well as Roland, Robert C. and John M. Jones “Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate: Moral Clarity Tempered by Pragmatism” Rhetoric and Public Affairs Vol 9 No 1 2006   

Feb 14             Discuss Burke

Excerpts from A Grammar of Motives and Language as Symbolic Action Kenneth Burke

“The Rhetoric of Identification and the Study of Organizational Communication”, George Cheney, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol 69, 1983, pp 143 – 158

“The Making of the Speech” DT Max, New York Times Magazine, Oct 7, 2001

Feb 21             Second Essay Due

                        Discuss Bormann

Excerpts from Bormann 

“An expansion of the rhetorical vision component of the symbolic convergence theory: The cold war paradigm case”, Ernest G. Bormann, John F Cragan, and Donald C. Shields, Communication Monographs, March 1996. Vol 63 Issue 1, p.1.

Feb 28             Historical Perspective

“Uncivil Speech: Invective and the rhetorics of democracy in the early republic” Jeremy Engels, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol 95, No 3, Aug 2009, pp 311-334

“Defining ‘the Enemy’ in Revolutionary America: From the rhetoric of protest to the rhetoric of war” J. Michael Hogan and L. Glen Williams The Southern Communication Journal Vol 61 No 4, Summer 1996 pp 277 – 288

Excerpt from Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn, 1967

March 7          Discuss Civil Religion

Civil Religion in America” by Robert Bellah, Deadalus, Vol. 96 No. 1, Winter 1967 (reprinted Vol 117, No 3, Summer 1988)

“Losing our Civil Religion” John Carlson Religion and Politics Sept 2017

March 14                    MID TERM EXAM

March 21        NO CLASS – SPRING BREAK

March 28        Rhetoric of Redemption

“The Rhetoric of Atonement” Joy Koesten and Robert Rowland, Communication Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1 Spring 2004, pp. 68- 87 

“George W. Bush at Goree Island: American Slavery and the Rhetoric of Redemption” Martin Medhurst, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 96 No. 3, August 2010 pp. 257 – 277

April 4            Third Essay Due

                        Discuss Narrative

“Telling America’s Story: Narrative Form and the Reagan Presidency.” By:  Lewis, William F.. Quarterly Journal of Speech, Aug87, Vol. 73 Issue 3, p280, 23p

“Story Time” By: Robert B. Reich. The New Republic. March 28 – April 4, 2005

“Redemption and American Politics” by Dan P McAdams, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/3/04

“Get Me Rewrite!”, Joshua Wolf Shenk, Mother Jones, May/June 2004.

April 11          Discuss the Rhetoric of Populism

“The Populist Chameleon: The people’s party, Huey Long, George Wallace, and the populist argumentative frame”, Michael J Lee, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol 92, No 4 Nov 2006 pp 355-378

“Trump and American Populism: Old whine, new bottles” Michael Kazin, Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 2016 pp 17 – 24, 

“Conservative Appeals to the People: George Wallace’s populist rhetoric” Lloyd Rohler, Southern Communication Journal Vol 64, April 1 2009, No 4 pp 316 – 322

April 18          Discuss the Rhetoric of War

 “Idealism and Pragmatism in American Foreign Policy Rhetoric: The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam” Presidential Studies Quarterly Denise Bostdorff and Steven Goldzwig, Summer 1994;

“The Rhetoric of Foreign Policy” Quarterly Journal of Speech Philip Wander, Vol 70 Nov. 1984; “Obama’s Speech and the Rhetoric of War” The Hill Dec. 9, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/defense/262584-obamas-speech-and-the-rhetoric-of-war