- Lat. populus, “people”.
The label “populist speech” is both descriptive and evaluative. Such speech is stigmatized and is widely considered to be used to promote negative values, xenophobia and other irrational and brutal phobia; to call for action on the basis of non-controlled emotions and poor analysis as opposed to argued rational conclusions; and to make indiscriminate promises, suggesting that the proposed solutions are the only ones possible, easy to implement, that they will work miracles, and will have no negative consequences.
Populist discourse appeals to immediate satisfaction, and is opposed to the hardship discourse of perseverance and slow improvements: “If you vote for me, you will have to accept sacrifices. But, later, may be…”
“Populist” is the new label for ancient and modern “demagogues”, developing, for the sake of pure short-term electoral benefits, a discourse which they know is untenable.
1. Appealing to the beliefs of a group
The ad populum argument is sometimes defined as an argument derived from premises admitted by the audience, rather than from universal premises. Such an argument would therefore aim to achieve adherence rather than truth (Hamblin 1970, p. 41, Woods and Walton 1992, p. 211).
According to the Socratic criticism of assembly discourse as focusing on social persuasion when addressing the audience about their everyday affairs and worries, to the detriment of transcendental truth, all political speech would be inherently populist, S. Probable. In this sense, all rhetorical or dialectical arguments would be ad populum. The argument ad populum is then no different from the argumentation on the interests, beliefs and passions of the audience, abundantly referred to as ex concessis, ex datis, or ad auditores argument.
2. Appealing to emotion
“We can define the paralogism known as argumentum ad populum as an attempt to win the popular assent to a conclusion by arousing the emotion and enthusiasm of the masses” (Copi 1972, p. 29; quoted in Woods and Walton 1992, p. 213). The ad populum argument is negatively related to hatred and fanaticism, and not always positively to enthusiasm: it is caught in the general condemnation of passions, without taking into account the fact that on the one side, emotions may or may not be justified, and that, on the other side, good and bad arguments may be based on strong emotions, S. Emotion.
This definition corresponds to the designation ad captandum vulgus “playing to the gallery”, in other words, to theatrical oratory, not an exclusive characteristic of politicians. The orator becomes an actor. The criticism of ad populum joins the moral criticism of flattering discourse, and the critique of enthusiasm, conformism and group effects in general, as “bandwagon fallacies” and alignment with the majority crowd (ad numerum), S. Pathos; Emotions; Laughing; Consensus.
As in all cases of appeal to the passions, we might suspect substitution of the passions for the logos, hence a lack of relevance (Woods, Walton 1992, p. 215), S. Vicious circle..
3. Argumentative orientation of the word people
The word people can take two opposite argumentative orientations. The individualist, who believes that all virtue resides in the individual, may conclude, by application of the scheme of the opposite, that the crowd is inherently corrupt, and that all argumentation appealing to popular sentiment is therefore fallacious. The people are always the populace.
On the other hand, the adage vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people, is the voice of God” gives the people a degree of infallibility. The popular corruption argument mirrors the ad superbiam fallacy, that is the accusation of pride (ad superbiam), a sin committed by people who consider themselves to be superior to an inherently corrupt people, S. Dismissal; Collections (2).
Boldly relying on an effect of composition backed by two analogies, Aristotle supports the superiority of the Many over the One:
According to our present practice assemblies meet, sit in judgment, deliberate, and decide, and their judgments all relate to individual cases. Now any member of the assembly, taken separately, is certainly inferior to the wise man. But the state is made up of many individuals. And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than any individual.
Again, the many are more incorruptible than the few; they are like the greater quantity of water, which is less easily corrupted than a little. The individual is liable to be overcome by anger or by some other passion, and then judgment is necessarily perverted; but it is hardly to be supposed that a great number of people would all get into a passion and go wrong at the same moment. (Aristotle, Politics, III, 15. Jowett, p. 99)
— Maybe “hardly to be supposed”, nonetheless historically well documented.
4. Populum and plebs: The people and the crowd
In republican Rome, the appeal to the people, provocatio ad populum, was a right of appeal (jus provocationis) in criminal trials, a basic human right of the defendant. As a last resort, an accused Roman citizen would be able to bring his case before the populus. The populus is the assembled people, constituted as a political-judicial body, in the comitia centuriata, the solemn assembly of the people, in which full citizens vote and make decisions. In these assemblies, the gods themselves speak via the voice of the people. The populus is therefore very distinct from the vulgus or the plebs as haphazard, unorganized wholes.
This right is linked to Republican institutions: “tradition claims that the provocatio ad populum was created by a law of the consul Publicola the same year the Republic was created” (Ellul , 278). With the Empire, “the provocatio ad Cæsarem evicted the provocatio ad populum” (Foviaux 1986, p. 61), that is to say, that Caesar replaced the People.