The US Elections and Carlyle’s “Stump Oratory”

by Mark Wallace

Thomas Carlyle insisted that the leader of any people should be the ablest man among them, also known (to him) as the “strongest” man. Should the Ableman come to power, all would be well; should an unable man come to power, all would not be well, but very much the reverse. There are, of course, many ways of seeking the appropriate leader, but the worst of all ways, according to Mr C., was through democratic elections. This was because through these was found not the man who was ablest, exactly, but the man who was ablest to get elected. That is not the same thing at all.

To be able to get elected a man must have one skill above all: talking. Therefore, once democracy becomes established, then “Vox is the god of the universe”. A democratic society is a talking society, a show society, where the man who would be elected to any post at all must talk his way into it. He need not be wise, but he must be plausible. And plausible to the greatest number, who Carlyle found to be inevitably “blockheads”. So, if to be plausible is not to be wise, as Carlyle felt it was not, then society has a problem. The Chelsea Sage asked: “Is society become wholly a bag of wind, then, ballasted by guineas?” and implied that the answer was a resounding Yes.

Barack Obama

Thomas Carlyle, rhetor and anti-rhetorist

In the wake of the US presidential election, one may reflect that Carlyle’s diagnosis, though blunt and perhaps unnuanced, still holds some central truths about the democratic process. Barack Obama’s victory speech, for example: was this a wise speech, or a plausible one? Did it even aim for wisdom, or just plausibility? If we allow that Obama is, relatively speaking, an able man, if not necessarily the Ableman of Carlyle’s philosophy, how do we find that his ability and intelligence is manifested in his speech? The speaking of a president, I would contend, is almost always of the bag of wind variety. Thus Obama’s speech began with an appeal to jingoistic pride:

Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to  determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.

Then there’s a lot of formulaic, generalized rhetoric about “spirit” and “dreams”, also touching the buttons of “individuality” and the national “family” – America is both individual independence and community:

It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the  spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted  this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief  that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American  family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.

Then “the road has been hard, the journey has been long, etc.” So many words, so many cliches, so little substance, so little focus. So much generality, so little detail. So much rhetoric, so little originality and personal vision. So much “flinging up of caps” in celebration  from the congregation, so little stopping to think whether the speech contains even a germ of truth or meaning. To top it all off at the end, Obama invoked “God’s grace” to help guide America forward. It’s always a good move, once the crowd are fired up with enthusiasm, fellow-feeling, nationalist pride, to bring in the G-word: so much resonance, so little meaning. And that was the thread of the whole speech, the old rags of idealistic language, worn thin but enough to get the cap-flinging started. In the cold light of day, it’s all meaningless, but many people never see the cold light of day.  They don’t want to, and as long as Obama (or whoever) is prepared to feed them the old cants, they won’t have to.

So to return to Carlyle: he had grave misgivings that all of this talking was by its nature insincere, that doing brings us closer to truth and our own natures, but that talking brings us away from truth towards plausibility. Eventually, we can’t tell the difference, but are very sure that the plausible on which we have been nourished must be truth. We no longer see with eyes, but with the spectacles of public opinion, to use one of his favourite metaphors. Obama’s victory speech is another example of that: its banality is hardly even a reflection of him, but of the sum of social factors to which he must respond to become the most electable man. The problem is, one can’t simply assume the role; like with any role, one ends by becoming it. To indulge in too much stump-oratory is “to have your bloated vanities fostered into monstrosities by it, your foul passions blown into explosion by it, and perhaps your very stomach ruined with intoxication by it”, says Mr C. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but yet we must admit, and it is shown starkly in the victory speech of the US president, that we live in a time of cant and jargon, with who knows what consequences for the human soul.

Obama, Barack, “Election 2012 victory speech”,, 8 Nov 2012.”

All Carlyle quotes taken from: “Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets (London, 1850)