Adam Gaffey is. A linguist and philosopher at South Dakota’s Black Hills State University, Dr. Gaffey is analyzing the language used in campaign speeches.
Adam J. Gaffey is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Philosophy at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. He holds a Ph.D. in communication (emphasis in rhetoric and public affairs) from Texas A&M University. His research centers on public address and rhetorical theory. Published versions of his work have appeared in Southern Communication Journal, Western Journal of Communication, and the recent edited volume, The Effects of Rhetoric and the Rhetorics of Effect.
Do political speeches matter? Scholars of rhetoric study campaign discourse to understand the ongoing process of how words can alter public perceptions, an essential function for political candidates. In short, speeches introduce, reinforce, and alter public attitudes about culture and character in the common symbolism of language.
Consider an unlikely candidacy of Barack Obama. When he announced his campaign for president, he was the long-shot, perceived as both inexperienced for the office, and unlikely to break the racial barrier of the presidency.
Yet, his presidential campaign announcement speech showcases a strategy to overcome his constraints with the theme of “change.” Contrary to the belief that Obama’s “change” was abstract, a close reading of his announcement speech reveals that he defined “change” in specific terms, and through a complex set of historical analogies. For Obama, change meant expansion of collective freedom, participation of citizens in public affairs, and leaders who utilize speech to motivate political progress—all evident, he argued, in our national narrative, particularly the example of Abraham Lincoln.
Obama’s Lincoln is remembered through the lens of “change” as someone who helped inspire citizens to organize and enact political transitions like the abolition of slavery through “his will and his words.” In short, there is no “change” without the ability to inspire citizens to action—a leadership trait Obama already possessed. For Obama, the presidential campaign was a new chapter in an ongoing tradition of expansive justice. As a candidate perceived as unlikely or inexperienced, the best way to make room for the idea of his leadership was to tell a narrative that made the change and candidate of today seem conventional with a tradition of change from the past.
In Obama’s speech we glimpse into the political judgment of a speaker who both understood and sought to alter his public standing. The more we listen, the more we know. And the more we know, the more we see that speeches still matter.