speak softly and carry a big statistic

On her 2016 presidential campaign trail Clinton seemed to be doing everything right in terms of adhering to the rhetorical strategies necessary for an orator to convince her audience, and yet, the results of “following the rules” proved perplexingly unfruitful. In this synthesis, I want to examine Clinton’s ethos, leadership style, and public perception to see where her rhetoric may have fallen short in her bid for the White House. I will attempt to do so by synthesizing the background of her political ascension, her extensive media coverage (including social media and satirical news articles), the arguments in her speeches, and the rhetorical tools at her disposal.

If we turn to history, Shirley Chisholm, in her announcement to run for President, chose to distance herself from her race and gender to convince voters of her credibility. This strategy set a precedent for how women have to run for public office, suggesting that they must avoid identity markers in their speech to be taken seriously.

Sarah Palin demonstrated the perils of going against this precedent in her 2008 speech to the RNC. By making an emotional appeal to the Republican demographic with her folksy delivery, extended references to family (her own and those of soldiers and special needs people),  and compliments for John McCain the “American war hero,” she built up her ethos. Yet, despite her powerful verbal delivery, no doubt boosted by her eye-catching visual rhetoric, she also faced public criticism for appearing ditzy and thus incompetent. For women in politics, portraying themselves as unintimidating and playing into gender stereotypes can come with negative repercussions.

In a comment regarding self-presentation, akreichman writes,

“As in so many other arenas, women are really stuck here between a rock and a hard place, and it leads me to wonder how a woman could possibly present herself in a way that would be accepted by the public, and if there’s any escape from this paradox.”

The gender double standard guarantees that there is no way for women to win in the public sphere, no matter how they present themselves or what type of leadership style they adopt.


From this article profiling Eileen Fisher and her preference of working behind the scenes, we learned that a defining characteristic of female leadership styles may be an emphasis on self-effacing unity rather than aggressive self-promotion. Here, buffington36 wonders what kind of leadership style Hillary will have if she enters office; will it resemble Fisher’s decentralized hierarchy, focused on building connections? Or will Clinton adopt a masculine style of leadership? Ezra Klein’s Vox article gives us a hint to the answer and professorhayden’s summary extends the rejoinder :

“Clinton’s strategy of listening over talking may do her credit while on the job, but creates problems when she’s campaigning for a particular job.”

Clinton’s listening strategy of taking many concerns into account is gendered feminine and works for her when she is making policies and building political alliances. According to sarahparente, Clinton has attempted to appear more feminine but refuses to adjust her arguably masculine rhetorical style, much to her disadvantage in the political arena. “When she speaks it is with authority and offers little emotional appeal. Clinton speaks like a lawyer and challenges society’s idea of how a woman should speak, and what she should speak about.”


Both delivery and content are areas where female orators must tread carefully. In wordsofthewall’s Exploration of the “fundamental imbalance between male and female candidates,” he invokes the idea of the female who fails just once at “embracing her characteristic virtuosity” and is condemned as a “tainted specimen” for life, so naturally she fears making mistakes and might be perceived as guarded. So what happens when she breaks free of this socially imposed behavioral constraint?

Addressing criticisms of Clinton coming off as overbearing, Sarah makes clear that “if she were a man her actions wouldn’t be discursive.” Csandy54 brings this idea to life in her Exploration wherein she imagines Henry Clinton and Donna Trump facing off in the first presidential debate; Henry, as a man, would be praised for his logical presentation and emotional composure while Donna would be vilified as irrational and hysterical, a shrew through and through.


With some rare exceptions, the media does Hillary no favors;  it “tends to paint Clinton as either competent or authentic, but rarely both.” Women in politics in general are caught in this double bind perpetuated by gendered language. And how do they typically respond to irresponsible (male) orators with a media platform from which to spew their misogyny? With looks of disbelief and anger, but no real verbal comeback–a retreat, as adelakolenovic remarks. This retreat can be read not as a weak response, but as “letting the action speak for itself and having the insult represent the ignorance of the speaker.” In my own comment I propose that body language can be very telling and a strategy on its own. This is a plausible theory applicable to Clinton as well, given that the “Presidency is still seen almost exclusively as a ‘bastion of masculinity.'”

Commenting on the same article, csandy54 points out the feedback loop effect that sexist pundits create on cable news: “I do think that the performers from these clips are some of the loudest people championing their perspective, which lends to the idea that they’ve got many supporters, which in turn is what gives them the courage to be so loud.” That we are psychologically burdened by meme stashes and Facebook echo chambers only adds to this amplification of our own political biases, wherever our allegiances lie, so the fault does not lie solely with media sources, comedic or otherwise, for contributing to the air of untrustworthiness surrounding HRC. Media plays a role, certainly, in Hillary’s election loss, but so do our media consumption habits that support hive mind mentalities. Confirmation bias influenced both Hillary haters and supporters; as fervently as Donald’s voters responded to his inflammatory emotional appeal, many Hillary voters were equally blindsided by their unequivocal support of a trailblazing candidate that made appeals throughout history to all three Aristotelian modes of persuasion using justice and expediency arguments.


For the less enthusiastic, though, Clinton was merely the marginally better presidential candidate of two lackluster options.  clogan10 astutely speculates that “the growing place that humor hold[s] in our political rhetorical discourse could possibly be linked to the lack of agency many people feel within our current governmental system.” It may be helpful to keep in mind that when Hillary calls on supporters to remain politically active in the wake of defeat, she speaks to a limited contingency that believes that they possess the power to effect social change, however gradual.

Clinton’s election loss implies a disconnect between the image she has built for herself as a credible rhetor with variable delivery methods and the distorted image voters received through media coverage. As I continue my investigation into the rhetorical reasons behind the loss of trust in Clinton as a viable presidential candidate, questions remain: Why might Clinton lack a strong oratorical ethos? To what extent are silence and listening effective rhetorical strategies for Clinton? Specifically, did her history of listening and silence work against her campaign?