A new age dawns for political oratory

Posted 21st October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment

As a political tool, oratory has a proud and powerful record. It was a vital weapon in the fight for civil rights, the battle for women’s suffrage and the war against slavery. Great speeches have helped nations come together to confront disaster and inspired the masses in every revolution. Whether a call to arms or words of idealism and empathy, good oratory commands special power that the same words printed on a page cannot.

Until recently, it seemed that political oratory was in terminal decline. Television, with its appetite for the catchy and accessible soundbite, rewards simplicity, brevity and a cute turn of phrase. As TV rose to dominate the news cycle, politicians catered to the medium and changed the way they communicated with the electorate. Over-simplification became commonplace. Good ideas were sometimes sacrificed because they could not be encapsulated in a sentence. With the energy of politicians and the media fixed on just a few dozen words in each policy statement, oratory, with its emphasis on substance, length and logic, fell into obscurity.

With its power to bring full-length speeches directly to voters around the world, the internet is catalysing a great new age of political oratory. The potential to inspire change is larger than ever before. Consider that speeches with very small audiences have shifted the course of nations. Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill” oration and Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern were witnessed by a few hundred observers. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was heard by a few thousand. Now, think of the reach of the internet. Last week, Barack Obama’s oration at the Democratic convention was heard live by tens of thousands of Americans. Since then, it has been watched online by millions.

Politicians delivering major speeches now know that large numbers of people — as well as of all of posterity — can watch their complete address with a few clicks of a mouse. Delivering a full, meaty oration is suddenly essential for a serious politician in a serious contest. Deliberation, rigour, and plain good argument, are back in vogue.

The online audience is not just any collection of voters. Those who take the time to watch a full address will likely be thoughtful, politically aware, and have a real appreciation of the complexities confronting today’s policy makers. This audience wants to hear something real. They want to be convinced and persuaded through sound reason and passionate delivery.

By facilitating an unedited exchange between orator and listener, internet oratory will enhance the quality of our democracy by diluting the power of media and political advisers. Television placed mediators between orator and audience. Powerful spin-doctors, whose talent in drafting newsy sentences was elevated above their potential to contribute to policy, took undue importance in the political process. The TV producers who determined what would be broadcast, and their bosses who own the right to do so, exercised enormous control over the presentation of political messages. The internet removes the middle-man, allowing a more direct, democratic exchange between the listener and the speaker.

This new age of oratory will improve the quality of public policy. Television produced more than mediocre words. By allowing more of our politicians to get away with weak, one-dimensional policy statements, television produced mediocre ideas. The rise of internet oratory means that such pronouncements will be less frequently tolerated. The ideas explored in a long speech are much more likely to be comprehensive and intelligent, in time leading to fresher and more intelligent policy.

In the long term, a greater focus on substantive public discussion will change the quality of our politicians. Most politicians can deliver a pithy one-liner to a media pack. But it takes a person of real substance to give, with passion and vigour, a deep and entertaining 50-minute policy statement. In such a lengthy address, we really get to know the orator, encouraging honest words, from good people, who care about their work.

It’s tempting to speak of the internet as reviving an old mode of communication, but I don’t think that’s accurate. When millions of people sit in their homes and choose to watch a long, detailed policy address, we’re not witnessing merely the revival of a lost art. This is something quite new: the invention of a fresh mode of political discourse with the power to promote deeper and more deliberative democracy.

Clare O’Neil is a Fulbright Scholar. She graduated in June with a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University.

Originally published September 6, 2008 in The Age

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