As the rhetoric of political campaigns builds, it is interesting to look at the logic involved in the arguments presented. While the majority of candidates are probably sincere in their belief that they are the best person for the job, fallacious arguments abound. On the other hand, with intelligent candidates, speech writers, and careful consideration of most arguments they present, it is unlikely that the candidates use fallacies unintentionally. Instead, the two most likely reasons are that (1) the candidate believes the argument will be effective, whether fallacious or not; and/or (2) the candidate believes a particular demographic will find the fallacy appealing in itself.
Appeal to Pity Explained
The appeal to pity is a fallacy that fits both reasons well. It uses pity, whether for the speaker or for some other group, in the place of a sound premise. For example, consider the following:
Mommy, I should not have to ride the bus to school anymore, because it makes me sad when you don’t take me to school.
The argument certainly is appealing; parents do not want anyone to make fun of their children. On the other hand, the child’s sadness or happiness has little to do with why the child is riding the bus, so the appeal does not lead logically to the conclusion. Similarly, consider this variation:
You should buy this t-shirt, because a portion of the proceeds go to raise awareness of lung cancer. Lung cancer is a debilitating, painful disease, and millions suffer from it.
Again, the argument is appealing; a prospective purchaser will feel bad about those suffering from lung cancer, and buying the shirt will let him/her feel better for doing something. However, those suffering will most likely not benefit from the “awareness” raised, and the pity evoked does nothing to explain how the purchase will help – or, as a result, why anyone should buy the shirt.
Appeals to Pity in Politics
The first type of appeal to pity – appealing to pity for the speaker him/herself – is risky for politicians, who need to present themselves as strong leaders. As a result, arguing that voters should choose a person because they feel sorry for that person is antithetical to what the candidate is trying to present, and a candidate will quickly backpedal from such a position. The most apt example in recent memory came when Hillary Clinton spoke of trying to break into the “boys’ club” when the male candidates were attacking her. The statement, made to a women’s group, quickly got out; in today’s world, after all, no statement by a public figure can be expected to be private, much less one made on a campaign stop. However she intended it (most likely as a catch-phrase to pander to women who feel underrepresented in politics), the interpretation that emerged was that people should vote for Clinton because she is a solitary woman dealing with all the nasty men campaigning against her.
Once it emerged, the campaign had to spin the comment quickly, and Clinton stated emphatically that she feels she is being attacked because she is leading, rather than because she is a woman. Clinton and her staff immediately recognized that besides being fallacious, an appeal to pity on one’s own behalf is counter-productive for a politician.
On the other hand, appealing to pity for other people can be powerful. An implicit example comes when candidates appear at sites where disasters have occurred: New Orleans (a more popular site from a public relations perspective than Mississippi, despite the shared disaster), Ground Zero, and similar sites. A candidate in these cases is attempting to appear compassionate, and to show that if voters have compassion/pity for those recovering from disasters, they should align with that candidate. The imagery is powerful, even if the candidate’s capitalization on disaster for political gain probably shows something that is decidedly not compassion, and thus has little to do with the reasons a person should or should not vote for him/her.
A more explicit example comes when a candidate seizes an emotional issue and places it squarely into the political rhetoric. The current issue of choice is health care, which came to the Democratic candidates pre-packaged when, in vetoing the popular S-CHIPS expansion, the Bush administration defiantly set itself up as standing against health care coverage for poor children. If ever there was a group who could elicit pity from everyone, uninsured poor children is that group – and rightfully so, of course. However, it also provided an easy way for candidates to avoid talking in-depth about health care positions, falling back on one-liners that take advantage of pity people feel for those children and promoting their plans – however vaguely described – as being the best way to help those poor, innocent children.
To be fair, several candidates have written (or have had campaign staff write) detailed proposals for expanded or “universal” health care. The campaigns, though, are built not on the details of what a relatively small number will read, but on rhetorical shorthand that attempts to use these appeals to pity to woo voters. The point here is not that candidates are not sincere or that they do not have developed positions. The point is that, rather than explaining those positions to everyone – a difficult task, to be sure – they instead present fallacious arguments to the masses. Appealing to pity is sometimes more powerful than fully explaining a position, but it is not logically sound. Voters should look past the rhetorical tricks and evaluate candidates, to the extent possible, on what the candidate actually plans to do.