Who are ‘the people’?
Uses of empty signifiers in propagandistic news discourse
As expressions without clear definition but with strong normative charging, empty signifiers play an important role in political discourse. Uniting diverse populations under a common banner and endowing political demands with self-evident legitimacy, they constitute a potent tool for rallying support for political action. Among empty signifiers, one particularly versatile construct are ‘the people’ as bearers of ultimate political legitimacy. In this paper, we investigate how ‘the people’ are constructed in propagandistic conflict narratives during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, imbuing the concept with different meanings in the pursuit of competing political ends. We show how ‘the people’ are constructed as democratic sovereign, enduring nation, moral humans or dispersed media publics, each time summoning different kinds of legitimacy and using different strategies to construct encompassing consensus and marginalize dissent. We discuss implications for the study of ideological discourse, populism and political communication.
Keywords: the people, empty signifiers, populism, propaganda, legitimation, political discourse, ideology, Russian-Ukrainian conflict
Published online: 25 March 2020
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