Logical Fallacies in this Political Season

coffee_then_rhetoric_tshirtRhetoric is not just for liars anymore. Politicians have given “rhetoric” a bad name. This current political season is no different than any other. People trying to get elected use words to get you to do things – vote for them. At some point, the word, “rhetoric” will be spewed out as if it were a dirty word. Don’t sully the reputation of this beautiful word, “rhetoric.

Watch this interesting video, produced by Clemson, that will put the “rhet” back into “rhetoric.”


Michael D.C. Drout is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. He teaches Old and Middle English, medieval literature, Chaucer, Fantasy, and science fiction. Drout says:

“We tend to think of “rhetoric” either as something bad and manipulative (when we discount speech as “just a bunch of rhetoric”) or as something elevated and perhaps overblown, but in fact rhetoric is simply (and complexly)the art of using words to change the world.

The word “rhetor” means “orator” or “teacher,”and the art of rhetoric was taught in ancient Greece for public purposes: convincing and inspiring one’s peers so that they would take courses of action you believed to be wise.


Don’t be a Cassandra

Drout further encourages us not to be a “Cassandra”.

In ancient Greek literature, Cassandra tricked the god Apollo into giving her the gift of prophecy. But as a punishment, Apollo cursed Cassandra to be right always but never to have anyone believe her. Cassandra thus exemplifies the rhetorically deficient person: She knows what is right, but she is unable to convince anyone to do anything about it.

I do not want to be a Cassandra. How about you?

Logos,Ethos, Pathos

Drout gives us a good way to remember the important rhetoric elements of logos, ethos, and pathos.

You can think of the three pieces, logos, ethos,and pathos, as logic, ethics, and sympathy (the root words are recognizable).


My son, who agrees with me about most things political made a comment that kind of made me feel good, but also made me say, “Hmmm.”  We were discussion political issues when he said,

” Mom, you should have a talk show about politics.”

Maybe I should. I know for certain, I need to understand and identify some of the logical flogicalfallallacies. Some of the examples of these logical fallacies are mine and may contain rhetorical errors and thus another kind of logical fallacy. Please do not automatically assign Argumentum ad Hominem to me!

  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. This is a fallacy somewhat related to asserting the consequent. This is a hard one to avoid. This is assuming that the converse of a true statement is automatically true. “The economy is failing, it must be George Bush’s fault. The war in Iran was a victor, it must be Obama’s presidency.”
  • Denying the Antecedent. People incorrectly assume the invese is true. Inverse takes a true statement and puts NOT on both sides.  “If the economy is not failing, it must not be George Bush’s fault. The war in Iran was not a victor, it must not be Obama’s fault.”
  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. This fallacy is when a writer assumes that because something came after something else, the first thing caused the second thing. “Gore was in office during the birth of the internet, thus Gore invented the internet”.
  • Petitio Principii (Begging the Question). This fallacy is abused by newspaper columnists according to Professor Drout. This means you have asked the other side to concede the main point in the argument. A simple example:

If we are arguing about what to eat for dinner, you say, “just to speed things up, can’t you at least agree that we won’t eat seafood?” so that we can move on. But if I wanted to eat seafood, asking me to concede, for the sake of argument, that we won’t eat seafood, is begging the question: asking for me to give in preemptively.

To be fair and balanced…

A red flag for this fallacy:the use of an adjective or adverb to perform all the logical work in the sentence. When politicians campaign on the platform of eliminating “wasteful spending,” they are in fact begging the question. Everyone is against wasteful spending; there is no need to have an argument about it. The real question (which has been begged here) is which spending is wasteful and which is not. Therefore, the word “wasteful” begs the question by trying to get you to agree that whatever spending the politician is against, you’re against too. You’ll see that this fallacy is related to the enthymeme: It assumes that you share the enthymeme with the speaker even when you don’t.

  • Attacking the Messenger: Argumentum ad Hominem

Argumentum ad hominem is probably most commonly used today in attacks on people’s intelligence: Candidate X is stupid; therefore his policies must be bad. Note that “candidate X is stupid, therefore we should not elect him” is a reasonable syllogism (with the enthymeme of “we should not elect stupid people”), but this says nothing about the policies the candidate is advocating.

The other day I heard a “talking head” or political spokesman comment with a sarcastic chuckle, “Thinking people and a Donald Trump supporter? Those phrases do not go together.” So, just because someone wants a political change for our country and supports an outlier like Trump, they are automatically – stupid?  This is a childish argument and a logical fallacy.

  • Tu Quoque.

An example would be “famous actor X says that population control is a good idea, but he has eleven children.” Famous actor X may be a hypocrite, but that does not address the merits of the idea of population control, whatever they may be. The tu quoque fallacy is probably the most common in all of political discourse.

Red Herring (Ignoratio Elenchi—Irrelevant Thesis). Because tu quoque focuses on the hypocrisy of the speaker, it distracts the hearer or reader from the real issues. That is the same general idea of the red herring, which is an attempt to change the subject from one in which the speaker is losing to one in which he is likely to win.

Other Logical Fallacies

  • Sweeping Generalization (Dicto Simpliciter).
  • Appeal to Ignorance (Argumentum ad Ignorantiam).
  • Plurium Interrogationum (Too Many Questions).
  • and many more…

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