A Dialogue on Populism? A Study of Intellectual Discourse about Populism in the Brexit Debate in Italy and the UK

Federico Giulio Sicurella
Università degli Studi di Milano – Bicocca
Federico Giulio Sicurella
Università degli Studi di Milano – Bicocca

Most works on populism framed in a discourse-analytic perspective focus on the features of populist discourse itself, contributing greatly to the understanding of the phenomenon. However, once populist discourse has been analysed, and stigmatised, the problem remains of what to do in order to stop it from further spreading and rooting outside the relatively restricted circles in which it originates. The main argument underlying this paper is that a full understanding of populism should also consider the ways in which notions of populism, and of what being populist means, are constructed, negotiated, reproduced, and popularised in public discourse, as this contributes greatly to forming public opinion at large and people’s responses to populism itself. For this reason the paper addresses discourses about populism, with a focus on editorials dealing with Brexit in the Italian and British press. Although their position of supremacy in orienting public opinion has been partly mined by talk shows, blogs, and social media at large, opinion pieces remain one of the most important sites in which intellectuals (generally senior journalists) publicly share their views trying at the same time to influence the opinion of the readers.

Based on an original framework integrating categories from critical discourse studies, argumentation theory, and the study of heteroglossia/dialogism, the analysis focuses on the ways in which editorialists define and evaluate populism and populists, the argumentative topoi they employ to support their standpoints, and whether and how they engage alternative viewpoints. In our view, all these aspects concur to expand or reduce the space of dialogue created by the text, and hence, we claim, the ability of the readers to feel included, i.e. see their positions represented, in the broader discussion. The risk is that if no dialogue is opened at all—not necessarily with staunch populists, who will hardly be moved away from their positions, but with the people who might share some of the concerns leveraged by populist discourse—intellectual discourse will fail to involve these people as interlocutors in a critical discussion, thus making them more receptive (or vulnerable) to populist propaganda.
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