Populism from an Argumentation Theoretical Perspective – Menno Reijven

UMASS Amherst

“One feature of populism is that it is argumentative. It is used to convince people to vote for someone. When appealing to people to gain their vote, politicians have to maneuver strategically. In order to be effective, arguers have a wide variety of tools at their disposal with which they can maneuver strategically in order to realize their argumentative goals.

One of those tools, which is central to populist rhetoric, is speech codes. Speech code refers to the unique framework of a particular community by which language use becomes meaningful communication to the participants. Specifically, this means that various cultural and social forces determine how communication becomes meaningful for them. This ranges from what counts as politeness to what is assumed about the world. For example, discourses of patriotism are central to the U.S. speech code. When trying to convince an audience, it is necessary to appeal to their speech codes, such that your message resonates with them. However, there are certain terms and practices — like patriotism in the U.S. — which have an immediate persuasive appeal. Such terms and practices are called cultural persuadables. Hence, aligning with the cultural presumptions of one’s audience can support persuasion, but could also mislead them.

Thus, appealing to speech codes is necessary in order to be understood correctly by one’s audience at all. Yet, it may be that the persuasive force of cultural persuadables becomes very strong and results in the audience accepting the politician’s words just because the speech resonates well. Then, the argumentation should be called fallacious as it is not calling for reasonable consideration. The question left is whether populism is necessarily fallacious, or whether it can also be valid.”

– Menno Reijven, University of Massachusetts Amherst