In the Name of People

July 10, 2019 12:00 AM

Szabó is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests lie in the area of political communication, media and expressive politics.  Recently, she's published with the International Journal of Communication, Problems of Post-Communism, and Social Media + Society.



Gabriella Szabó 

Referring to the people can hardly be considered as being a new discourse element in political campaigns. Politicians often claim that they are working to represent their constituencies and leaders appeal to potential followers' needs for economic well-being and prosperity. You may even recall the famous quote ”government of the people, by the people, for the people” in the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln which has been repeated by the inaugural speech of Barack Obama in 2013. Therefore it is misleading to say that any reference to the people is the constitutive element of populist communication, as theories (Canovan, 2002) and common sense may go. So, what are the specificities of populist rhetoric when it comes to talking about the people? 

Previous studies have compellingly demonstrated that populist discourse is focused on the juxtaposition of the people with enemies (Hossay, 1996; Markaou, 2017; Wodak, 2017). Populism is known to split society into two opposing groups, the people and the elites: populist actors often argue that the ‘elite’ is working against the feelings and wishes of citizens by putting the interest of the international bodies or other states over those of their own countries. Simply saying, the two main components of the populist discourse, - namely the prominent references to ‘the people’ or the ‘silent majority’, ‘normal people’, ‘nation’, etc. and the antagonistic perception of the relationship between ‘the people’ and the often international or cosmopolitan ‘elites’ – are inseparable from each other.

Beyond these two unifying characteristics, actors substantially vary in how they define ‘our people’ as opposed to the elite (Mudde – Kaltwasser, 2011). Left-wing or inclusionary populism speaks  against neoliberal forces and the corrupt establishment in the name of those who are suffering from the consequences of austerity policies unbound by ethnic, racial and gender restrictions. Whilst, right-wing or exclusionary populism tends to understand the people as an ethnically or culturally homogeneous unit. The humanitarian approach to migration or the LBGT right movements are discussed here as potentially dangerous attempts of the international/cosmopolitan elite to threaten such imaginarily united entity.

Hence, there is a pressing need to have an integrated picture of the populist communication techniques of how ‘people’ are constructed in contrast with the elite. The DEMOS project answers to this call and will identify those specific values that are valorised in populist discourses in order to emphasise and thematise the people’s homogeneity and identity from the cross-country perspective.

Social media analysis of the 2019 European Parliamentary election campaign will tell the main patterns of populist communicative constructions related to the ” people”. In other words: who are the people populist politicians want to connect with? What citizens do they want to protect from external or internal threat, social or economic breakdown caused by the “enemies”? Who are presented as prototypes of populist supporters?

We will also pay attention to the gender-aspect of the discourse: how femininity and masculinity are portrayed when populist politicians are talking about people as a common denominator of the political community. One of the main promises of the DEMOS project goes beyond textual analysis and includes visual materials in order to shed light on multimodalities in populist discourses on people.

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