- The Rhetorical Surface of Democracy: How Deliberative Ideals Undermine Democratic Politics by Scott Welsh
Any rhetorician who has become too complacent with platitudes about “deliberative democracy” and the “common good” should welcome Scott Welsh’s book, The Rhetorical Surface of Democracy: How Deliberative Ideals Undermine Democratic Politics, with the same sense of gratitude that Socrates expressed toward Callicles: “I realize that a person who is going to put a soul to an adequate test to see whether it lives rightly or not must have three qualities, all of which you have: knowledge, goodwill, and frankness” (Plato, Gorgias, 487a). All three of these qualities are indeed present in Welsh’s book: a comprehensive knowledge of major philosophers and contemporary rhetorical theorists; a refreshing frankness and critical eye toward democratic and rhetorical pieties; and a basic goodwill toward those he critiques. And, like a character in Plato’s Gorgias, Welsh enters the dialectical fray ready to take on all comers, using every argumentative resource to strip away illusions, undermine objections, reveal essential facts, and make us face up to the truth. And that truth is this: “democracy is about individual people and power, not about producing an always fictitious common good or will of the people” (101). And from this truth follows the hard fact that those who champion such fictitious entities actually undermine democracy because “they direct our energies to the [End Page 352] imaginary collective production of shared judgments and common futures, leaving everyone disappointed, fearful, or resentful” (108). Here is a bold statement that Welsh upholds with considerable skill and forcefulness, making his book a contribution to rhetorical scholarship that warrants attention, particularly from those he challenges.
If we take the title of the book as an indication of its major thesis, then the rhetorical surface of democracy is not actually a “surface” at all but its basic substance. That is to say, rhetoric is a surface that does not hide any “depths,” meaning, for Welsh, such mystical entities like the “people” or “public opinion.” What this rhetorical surface does instead is act as a kind of mirror in which individual citizens, each seeking power in their own way, can see their own interests reflected. Democratic majorities therefore are not created because they somehow produce a common will. Rather, “it is because diverse and conflicted citizens are able to see their own distinct reflections on the surface of single rhetorics that rhetorical politics is able to produce democratic majorities” (83). Rhetoric is therefore necessary to democracy because without it, people would lack a shared object of interest that stimulates them to action while providing the happy illusion that they are acting somehow with an identical motivation: “As such, rhetorical politics is an act in response to the impossibility of shared judgment, the common good, or the will of the people—the abyss of public opinion” (83). Welsh suggests a vision of democracy that revolves singly around politics (the movement of prominent political actors within a struggle for power) who wield rhetoric to compete for the people’s favor. In other words, democracy for Welsh becomes a sort of game of mirrors, with successful rhetoric reflecting what people believe to be their own interests.
The primary target throughout Welsh’s book therefore becomes all those theorists who posit a hidden “depth” to democracy that rhetoric can somehow tap into or disclose if constructed ethically, eloquently, and passionately. Not surprisingly, then, Welsh takes particular aim at rhetorical theorists connected with the strain of democratic thinking coming out of John Dewey. For each of these theorists, “listening to others in order to construct common goals and shared proposals is rooted, ultimately, in a democratic faith. This variously means faith in the possibility of genuinely public opinion, radical democratic transformation, democracy as a way of life, or the idea that reliable judgment [End Page 353] emerges in communication with those who are different from us” (51). Why, then, do we often lack a democratic faith? “Because a narrow concern with our individual...