The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders' Discourse - The Application of the Rhetorical Political Analysis ...

Journal of Business and Economics, ISSN 2155-7950, USA
March 2020, Volume 11, No. 3, pp. 787-860
DOI: 10.15341/jbe(2155-7950)/03.11.2020/004
© Academic Star Publishing Company, 2020

     The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political

 Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the Rhetorical Political Analysis

             Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political

                                 Communication from 1990 to 2014

                                                  Francesca Petracca
                                               (Independent Researcher, Italy)

      Abstract: The aim of this study was to investigate whether there is an increasing populist trend within Italian
political communication, an emergent tendency observed in other Western countries, by analysing the discourses
of party leaders at conferences. The time period considered was from 1990 to 2014. The Literature Review
focused on three main areas of interest. Firstly, it examined the function of rhetoric, as the art of the use of
language to persuade, and the evolution of its perception from classical to modern times. Hence, it explored the
role of political oratory in democratic systems and the concept of rhetorical situation, in order to illustrate how
deliberative rhetoric has evolved due to the changing context of political communication. Finally, it examined the
theory of argumentation, which applies to any speech which attempts at persuading, and how the rhetorical
strategy of reasoning related to the study of political ideologies. The study adopted a qualitative approach to
conduct the research. Specifically, it used the Rhetorical Political Analysis (RPA) as the investigative method to
conduct a discourse analysis of a sample of twenty leaders’ speeches at party conferences. This method allowed
the researcher to study the role of rhetoric within political language, in particular to examine political
argumentation and the evidence that speakers adopt to support a political claim. Findings and discussion
illustrated the results obtained through the analysis of the political discourses adopting the RPA method.
Evidential proof of the speakers’ addresses used in political argumentation to persuade their audience was
classified into four main categories: evidential, cultural, party political, and anecdotal quotations. These sections
examined the main themes tackled by each of the citations, outlined a trend of their usage by Italian political
actors over the period 1990-2014, and compared results among left and right-wing party leaders. Findings showed
that the use of the first three types of citations has gradually declined, compensated by the recent rise of the use of
anecdotes. Anecdotal quotations observed were of two kinds: stories about ordinary people, and stories about the
leaders’ personal experiences. While the former was indicative of an increasing importance within the political
debate of the voiced opinions of common citizens, the latter illustrated the rise of a personalisation process in
Italian politics.
      Conclusions related the outcomes of the research to the study aim and objectives. Specifically, it was argued

  Francesca Petracca, Master, Independent Researcher; research areas: political communication, political rethoric, democratic
populism. E-mail:

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

that political language is adapting to the changing context, whereby individuals ascribe to the common opinion the
importance of issues of public concern instead of to the authorities or to those who have the specialist knowledge
on such matters. Hence, the conclusion was that there is a populist trend within Italian political communication.
Recommendations for future research suggested conducting a holistic investigation of the use rhetoric within
political language, by combining the RPA, which considers rhetoric the analytical framework of argumentation,
with other approaches to discourse analysis, which acknowledge rhetoric as the object of analysis itself.
      Key words: political communication; rhetorical political analysis method; Italian political leaders
      JEL codes: B

      1. Introduction

      The purpose of this research is to examine the type and use of quotations adopted by Italian main party
leaders as a form of proof to legitimise their argumentations during annual conferences over the period 1990-2014.
Furthermore, it aims at investigating whether the rhetorical use of anecdotes in political discourses is becoming an
emerging regular practice, arguing that politicians’ preference for the use of ordinary people stories over specialist
knowledge supporting a political point are a reflection of a more general rise of a populist ideology in Italy. The
conceptual framework of this study includes the domain of political oratory, the evolution of political
communication and the theory of argumentation. Within the theory of argumentation, the researcher focuses on
the use of quotations as a form of argumentative proof, and on the connection between rhetorical reasoning and
political beliefs and body of ideas. The research will adopt discourse analysis as form of investigative approach to
research. In particular, the Rhetorical Political Analysis method will assist the researcher in analysing a sample of
twenty political leaders’ speeches from the last two decades. Findings and discussion of the research will be
presented before conclusions and recommendations for future research.
      The time span chosen reflects a period in which we have assisted to a significant political transition within
the Italian context. The early 1990s represent a breaking point for the political system that culminated with the
crisis of the First Republic. The emergence of the Second Republic is characterized by the mitigation of the
traditional differences between opposite political parties and by a gradual convergence towards the centre. Two
main coalitions, centre-left and centre-right, replace the previous political parties, although both support the same
axiom of liberal democracy (Caprara et al., 2006). The 2013 Italian elections altered the dynamic of the political
system, shifting towards a tri-polar party system due to the emergence of a new antagonistic political force rooted
in populist ideology. Appendix 8.1 will explore more in details the Italian political context, and, in particular, the
evolution of the political party-system over the period 1990-2014.
      This research aims at contributing to the study of political discourse in Western democracies, particularly to
the rhetorical use of argumentation by political actors during institutional speeches. The project builds on the
research conducted by Atkins and Finlayson (2013) on the adoption of anecdotes by some of the UK’s most
prominent politicians in their speeches during the period 1990-2010. It also takes inspiration from the study
conducted by the scholars in 2014 (Atkins & Finlayson, 2014) on the use of quotations by British politicians over
the last 50 years. However, the researcher aims to contribute to the field of political studies by overcoming some
criticisms that have been identified. Firstly, by attempting to correlate the use of quotations in discourses and the
external circumstances that might have determined or influenced their usage by political actors. Secondly, by
identifying the potential differences in the way opposite political factions recur to representative citations. Thirdly,

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

stories can be distinguished into two categories: those that report ordinary people’s experiences, and those related
to the leaders themselves. Therefore, the researcher will explore in which instance one type of story is preferred to
the other, specifically, examining how the use of quotations about the leaders’ personal experiences contribute to
the personalisation process of politics in Italy.
      1.1 Aim
     By using the RPA method, this study aims to investigate the populist effect on political communication,
which is an emerging trend observed in institutional speeches of other Western countries like the UK, and whether
it applies in Italy in the context of discourses at political party conferences.
      1.2 Objectives
          To identify the type and use of quotations — a form of proof to legitimate rhetorical argumentations —
           used in leaders’ discourses during party conferences over the period 1990-2014.
          To determine whether the citation of anecdotes — as a type of quotation — represents an emerging
           regular practice among political leaders during party conferences over the period 1990-2014.
          To identify the relationship between the use of quotations and the circumstances in which political
           leaders deliver their speech.

     2. Literature Review

      The literature review of this research is composed of three main sections. The first section introduces the
notion of rhetoric and its purpose when used within public discourses. It also examines scepticism towards the use
of this communicative technique within democracies. The second part focuses on political rhetoric and its function
in political disputes. Further, it introduces the reader to the concept of rhetorical situation, which represents a
necessary premise to confer meaning to rhetorical discourse. Finally, the researcher explores the evolution of
political communication from the classical period to the modern age, examining how political actors are adapting
to the challenges of the so-called digital era. Additionally, the study explores the current emergence of democratic
populism in Western countries as a new form of ideology which characterises modern times. The last section
focuses on the rhetorical use of reasoning in a political dispute to persuade the audience and it introduces the
reader to the theory of argumentation. Subsequently, the paper examines how quotations are used for political
reasoning, distinguishing among four types of citations: evidential, cultural, party political and anecdotal. The
attention focuses mainly on the recent practice of citing anecdotes as a form of rhetorical strategy to validate a
political point but also to legitimate the speaker’s public image. To conclude, the academic review analyses how
the theory of argumentation connects to the political theory of ideology, of which quotations are an exemplary
form of inference.
      2.1 Rhetoric: The Means for Effective Communication
      Rhetoric is defined as the art of employing words with the aim of persuasion (Wilkin, 2003). The use of
rhetoric arises with Corax of Siracuse during the fifth century B.C. to support people retrieving confiscated
properties after conflicts (Lamb, 1998). Thereafter, Athens adopted rhetoric as a means of ascertaining honesty in
public forums. Aristotle, one of the most notable classic rhetoricians, who considered rhetoric as the function
which enhances the effectiveness of communication, has largely influenced Western theorists’ study of rhetoric.
According to the Greek philosopher, rhetoric is employed “not to persuade, but to discover the available means of
persuasion in each case” (Aristotle, 1909, p. 5). While classical studies limit the scope of rhetoric to formal public

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

speeches, recent scholars have extended its application to informal speeches (Billig, 1991), scripts (Spurr, 1993),
visual images (Hill and Helmers, 2004) and online communication (Zappen, 2005), to name but few.
      If for most of the classical tradition such us Aristotle and Cicero, rhetoric is considered as a set of verbal and
written expressions instrumental to a public speaker to make people comprehend the truth, during the eighteenth
century academic, particularly logical mathematicians, started to perceive rhetoric as “the essence of deception
and distortion” (Chilton, 2003, p. ix). Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English (1984) suggests a
dual connotation of rhetoric on the one hand, it describes rhetoric as “the art of using words effectively in
speaking or writing”, while on the other, as a form of “artificial eloquence; language that is showy and elaborate
but largely empty of clear ideas or sincere emotions”. The dictionary depicts a negative connotation of rhetoric,
with a focus on its appeal to individuals’ emotions over rationality. Kant maintains that rhetoric is a means to
manipulate emotions rather than the ability to speak, and argues that it is used “to win minds over to the advantage
of the speaker before they can judge and to rob them of their freedom” (2000, p. 204 [5:327]). Plato shares this
rejection of rhetoric as the art of speaking well, but for different reasons: indeed, he objects that rhetoric is rather
monological than dialogical, a technique which is not predisposed to dialogue and debate and therefore in conflict
with the nature of any democratic debate (Chambers, 2009). In addition, Ramus (1964) distinguishes inherent
terminology: grammar, as the ability to converse well; dialectic, as the ability to argument well; and rhetoric, as
the ability to communicate in a persuasive and elaborate way. Hence, Ramus limits the scope of rhetoric to the
sole study of elocution and despoils it of the other two fundamental components, invention and disposition
(Perelman, 2005). Other theorists, like Marion Young (2000), have tried to retrain the notion of rhetoric. She
considers rhetoric as a positive means to enhance the dialogue because, through involving passion and emotions, it
supports mutual understanding and identifies the needs of the audience, which is being persuaded more effectively
than neutral speeches.
      Aristotle (2004) discerns three aspects of persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos represents the
consistency of the propositions and their ability to transmit the truth to the audience through the use of persuasion.
The role of rhetoricians is to relate concrete issues to “one of the general ideas out there in our common culture”
(Finlayson, 2014, p. 433) in order to make effective arguments to convince the audience. The speaker appeals to
the listeners’ sense of reason, inasmuch the arguments presented are imbued with logic and suggest making a
rational judgement. Pathos concerns the ability of the orator to appeal to the emotions of the audience a factor as
fundamental as logos in a rhetorical discourse as it motivates individuals to action. The orator should be able to
recognize the culture belonging to the audience so as to understand which emotions move them. Persuasion from
ethos reflects the character’s qualities and reputation showed in a way which provides credibility and reliability of
his words. Therefore, the appeal to character relies on the speakers’ reference to his experiences and authority and
use of arguments to connect with the audience’s set of beliefs and values (Finlayson, 2014).
      2.2 Political Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Situation
      In his the Politics, Aristotle defines individuals as a political animals by nature, arguing that humans are the
only living beings that possess language. Indeed, even if animals can use their voice to express their feelings,
human beings can use speaking to pursue their own objectives by declaring “the advantageous and the harmful,
and so also the just and unjust” (Aristotle cited in Gerson, 1999, p. 97). Thus, the Greek philosopher believes that
men who share this perspective have the impulse to organize themselves in a political community. The notion of
political oratory concerns “the strategies used to construct persuasive arguments in formal public debates and in
everyday political disputes” (Condor et al., 2013, p. 2). Cicero (1991), the Roman orator and philosopher, in his

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

De Oratore, maintained that a rhetorician should achieve three objectives through his public speaking: docere,
delectare, et movere — to inform, to please and to move — but, to do so, he needs to possess a considerable
discernment, rationality and to be able to adapting his communication to the specific occasion and circumstances.
Therefore, in order to make persuasive arguments, a rhetorician needs to identify and conform his discourse to the
doxa (Aristotle, 1991), showing cohesion between his values and common beliefs and opinions. According to
Kane and Patapan (2010) rhetoric represents a central aspect of public debate because politicians govern citizens
through regular and assiduous persuasion. Furthermore, Dryzek (2010) maintains that in representative
democracies rhetoric represents the essential tool to connect a plurality of stakeholders. Classic writings about
rhetoric do not circumscribe rhetoric to the political sphere. Indeed, Aristotle distinguishes three types of oratory
depending on when certain events happen: political, or deliberative oratory is used in function of future evolution
of actions about war and peace, trade and finances; judicial or forensic oratory is used in law courts to solve past
events; while epideictic or ceremonial oratory is practised for present occasions (Condor et al., 2013).
Nevertheless, Gill and Whedbee consider that “the essential activities of rhetoric are located on a political stage”
(1997, p. 157).
     2.2.1 The Evolving Context of Political Communication
     Bitzer’s study (1968) introduces to the analysis of the nature of the rhetorical situation and emphasizes its
relevance within rhetorical theory. The rhetorical situation is determined by the coexistence of constraints
represented by individuals, circumstances, relationships and objects that create an obstacle which can be
overcome solely through the rhetorical discourse. Theorists of rhetoric have mainly focused their attentions on the
speaker’s communicative techniques and the features of the speech itself, “rather than upon the situation, which
invites the orator’s application of his method and the creation of discourse” (Bitzer, 1968, p. 2). Therefore,
academics mainly study the formal aspects of rhetorical methods of a discourse rather than the characteristics of
the situation in which the speech occurs. Bitzer develops a theory of situation asserting that a rhetorical utterance
is generated as a response to a certain situation. It is the situation that gives rhetorical significance to a discourse
and a rhetorical discourse functions if it fits with the situational problem that requires it. Hence, “not the
[rhetorician] and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the [actual] source and ground of rhetorical activity”
(Bitzer, 1968, p. 6).
     “Speeches are products of their time” (Finlayson, 2014, p. 430), meaning that they reflect the context in
which they were given. Conversely, what varied speeches maintain in common to each other reflect how politics,
for some aspects, have remained constant over time. Modern scholars of political rhetoric still draw inspiration
from traditional studies on this topic such as Aristotle’s Rhetoric (1909) for instance. Therefore, if on the one hand,
most of the discourses recur to the same structure, on the other hand, new contexts have required a necessary
change in the way political rhetoric is exercised. Specifically, talking about the stages dedicated to public
speaking, political discourses shifted from being practiced in front of a particular audience and connoted by the
use of formal gestures to be mediated by different means of communication and addressed to multiple audiences.
As a result, politicians have opted for a more colloquial communication style, a democratisation of their language,
while the boundaries between public and private aspects of political leaders have become blurred, “resulting in a
rise of self-expressive politics and the personalisation of formal political rhetoric” (Condor et al., 2013, p. 6).
Despite new technologies increasing the opportunities of establishing a direct dialogue between political
representatives and their constituencies, some negative effects have been identified with the rise of the digital
revolution. For instance, recorded political speeches can be available on digital media for a potentially limitless

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

lifespan, leading to the risk of being misinterpreted due to the lack of their rhetorical context (Antaki and Leudar,
1991). Additionally, citizens acquire information about politics mainly through mass media (Jouet et al., 2011), a
fact which increases the chances of altering political messages due to the filters and manipulation that gatekeepers
can apply to the original speeches. Finally, new technologies reduce the ability of politicians to direct their
discourse to a particular audience. Therefore, politicians deal with multiple audiences with complex and even
conflicting opinions and concerns, leading to greater difficulties in appealing to such audiences and even greater
chances to be the object of criticisms. In addition to the new means of communication through which politicians
reach their audiences, political figures have also undergone some changes. Indeed, there has been the emergence
of professionals who specifically take care of discourse content and other political communication tools, reducing
the role of political actors to mere stage performers (Finlayson, 2014). It is argued that this has amplified the
social and cultural distances between the political elite and their constituencies, hence the capacity of the former
to tackle the public opinion’s true needs and complaints.
      2.2.2 The Rise of Democratic Populism
      According to Blumler and Kavanagh, since the 1990s, in modern democratic societies we have assisted to the
crisis of traditional ideologies, “leaving a sort of legitimacy gap that populism helps to fill” (1999, p. 220). This
has implied that politicians have needed to modify the way they speak by adopting a more accessible language
register and to seek more constantly the support of the constituency. The voice of the people is becoming more
prominent thanks also to the rise of popular media, which tends to expose the audience to the opinion ordinary
people on issues that are of public interest. Citizens are regaining the role of arbiter of civic knowledge, “as they
play a more active role in constructing social and political meaning out of the mix of mediated narratives” (Delli
Carpini & Williams, 1998, p. 15) which, in the past, was a prerogative of an established system of elites. Hence,
the emergence of a popular current has required politicians to restructure their discourse to maintain legitimacy, to
appeal to the audience and to “prove themselves in and through the terms of the ordinary” (Atkins & Finlayson,
2013, p. 13). Furthermore, it is fundamental to note that the decline of ideologies has been combined with a decay
of the extremist traits of political parties compensated with the emergence of a personalisation process of political
representatives (Caprara et al., 1999). This implies that voters’ political choices are motivated by politicians’
individual traits and personalities (Caprara et al., 2006) rather than by their identification with the values of
mainstream parties (Mair, 1997). The use of anecdotal testimony in the political discourse has been previously
mentioned. There are two forms of representative anecdotes: those concerning ordinary people and those about the
politician’s personal experiences and background. In light of the emerging trend of personalising politics, it can be
argued that narrating personal stories contributes not only to support a political argument, but also to form the
speaker’s public character and to bond themselves with the audience’s values. Indeed, as Colin Hay sustains, we
are assisting to the “assessments of party leaders’ character traits, credibility and trustworthiness [...] [replacing]
those of policy substance” (Hay, 2007, pp. 56-57).
      2.3 The Theory of Argumentation
      In the Organon, Aristotle denotes two ways of reasoning: analytic and dialectic. According to Perelman
(2005), these are distinguished forms of argumentation, where analytic concerns the truth while dialectic deals
with legitimate opinions. Indeed, Aristotle (1909, p. 1356b) considers that a convincing argument is the one
accepted by the audience, meaning that dialectic requires to advance an argument that cannot be impersonal as in
the case of analytical reasoning where the value of the inferences does not depend on individual judgement.
Furthermore, the Greek philosopher notices that argumentations are fundamental in applied disciplines, politics

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

for instance, where public debates and disputes are more likely to emerge. Kant identified the concept of modern
logic with Aristotle’s formal logic, or analytical reasoning, while totally excluding any correlation with dialectic.
Perelman (2005) criticises this view, sustaining that not only in mathematical demonstration but also in dialectical
controversies, reasoning is used to make a thesis for the person to whom it is addressed either acceptable or
rejectable. In the Topics, Aristotle (1909, p. 1357a) distinguishes dialectic from rhetoric, where the former is about
the individual capacity of using arguments in a debate while the latter represents a communication technique used
in public speaking to persuade the audience. Unlike classic rhetoric, the new rhetoric considers speeches directed
to any type of public, thus the traditional distinction between rhetoric and dialectic is discarded (Perelman and
Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969). As a consequence, the theory of argumentation applies to “the whole range of discourse
that aims at persuasion and conviction, whatever the audience addressed and whatever the subject matter”
(Perelman, 2005, p. 5).
      Politicians face a sort of “empirical uncertainty” (Finlayson, 2007, p. 549) due to the fact that they have to
make choices based on statements that are presumptive rather than definite and that they operate in a context
characterized by different views and opinions which lead to the emergence of disagreements. Alexander et al.
(2006, p. 51) state: “when society becomes more complex […], rather than responding to authoritative commands
and prescriptions, social processes become more contingent, more subject to conflict and argumentation”. It can
be argued that democratic politics are grounded on the concept of contestability, where different beliefs co-exist in
contrast with each other due to divergent criteria of evaluation and diverse circumstances rather than to merely
conflicting opinions, and where political actors need to adapt their acts to various audiences in order to legitimate
their role. There is also the emergence of the Habermasian (Habermas, 1989 [1962]) public sphere, where
ordinary people make their voices heard in public debates. As Hague et al. (1998, pp. 3-4) put it: “politics involves
reconciling differences through discussion and persuasion. Communication is therefore central to politics”.
Political activity ceases to be without the use of communication. On the other hand, rhetoric is often the bridge
used to reduce the distance and to reconcile the multiple components of a democratic system (Dryzek, 2010).
Indeed, rhetoric, as a verbal tool, facilitates the illustration of a political claim through the use of argumentations,
allowing the orator to “increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses presented to them for their
consent” (Perelman, 2005, p. 9), seen that in most cases there is not a unique and incontrovertible truth. This
means that a convincing argument is the one that takes into consideration the characteristics and traits of the
individuals to whom the discourse is addressed and that the orator needs to tailor his discourse to the audience.
Perelman (2005) sustains that the most effective way to persuade an audience is when the speaker founds his
reasoning on theses that are already widely accepted by the audience, such as common values.
      Unlike demonstrations derived from a steady system, there are different types of arguments which refer to a
wide body of propositions. A primary distinction can be done between reasoning presented as liaison, and
reasoning as dissociation, where the former consents to convey inference for adherence to the thesis, while the
latter seeks to disjoin elements of a previously related well-known tradition. There are three kind of reasoning
made through association: quasi-logical arguments, arguments built on the structure of reality and those that create
this structure (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969).

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
 Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

                              Table 1   Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s Argumentation Schemes
                                                              Quasi-Logical Arguments
 Argumentation by Association                                 Arguments Based on the Structure of Reality
                                                              Arguments Establishing the Structure of Reality
 Argumentation by Dissociation

(Van Eemeren et al., 1996, p. 106)

      The first type of argumentation is compared to formal reasoning since, on the one hand, it is interpreted
following the same logic of formal deduction while, on the other, it differs from rigorous deduction due to the fact
that it assumes premises that are non-formal. Hence, the validity of a quasi-logical argumentation depends on the
speaker’s capability of adapting reality to a logical schema. Arguments built on the structure of reality are based
on the relationship that bonds different elements of reality to each other. Liaisons can be of two main kinds
(Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969): liaisons of succession and of coexistence, where the formers refer to causal
nexus, while the latter refers to the relationship between two elements where one is displayed as the manifestation
of the other. This second type of argumentation is valid when there is a general consensus on the existence of
these bonds to which the orator recurs in his reasoning. The last form of argumentation through liaison serves to
form the structure of reality since it enables to create a general norm from a recognized single instance. Hence,
arguments that establish the structure of reality allow reasoning by example, illustration and model (Perelman,
2005). Reasoning by example assumes that starting from a concrete case, whose reality must be undeniable, it is
possible to assume the presence of a general rule. Reasoning by illustration starts from a norm that is already
accepted and is used “to give it a certain presence in consciousness” (Perelman, 2005, p. 108). Finally, reasoning
by model serves to introduce an exemplary instance to be emulated. However, Perelman (2005) stresses the fact
that for the person to whom it is addressed, the argumentation does not merely emulate anyone, but only those for
whom admiration is felt, those who are renown for having the authority due to their expertise and role in society.
Hence, this form of argument gains legitimation through the citation of a certain authority who becomes the
guarantor and witness of the considered course of action.
      2.3.1 The Use of Quotations in Political Reasoning
      Quotations represent an essential component of rhetorical argumentation since they are employed as
exemplary evidence to make an argument persuasive. According to Atkins and Finlayson (2014) the use of
citations is instrumental for appealing to: logos, by contributing to prove a certain statement; pathos, by
reinforcing the emotional side of a reasoning; and ethos, by identifying the character of the orator with certain
cultural beliefs and values. However, the source cited needs to be regarded as trustworthy, reliable and expert by
the publics so as to make an argument effective. The Aristotelian use of witness represents the reference to an
individual to whom the audience attributes authority in order to support an argument. The witness is either
“ancient”, such as “the poets and all those other famous men whose judgements are well known”, or “recent”,
such as “notables who have given some judgement” (Aristotle, 2004, p. 1375b). This means that the capacity of a
claim to persuade the audience can depend on the testimony cited, who, thanks to his stature, confers proof and
authority to an argument but also demonstrates his intellectual empathy with the speaker (Atkins & Finlayson,
2013). Furthermore, “the authority of the testimony [is] also conferred on the author who cited it”, as noticed by
Serjeantson (2007, p. 192). Indeed, through the use of prosopopoeia, the audience is induced to relate the
individual who is telling a story with the one who is cited. In contemporary rhetoric, orators recur to the use of

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

witness using quotations, meaning that they cite a thought expressed by someone who is perceived as an expert by
the audience and to whom they associate the technical knowledge. The use of quotation represents a phenomenon
linked to the concept of chreia, which is the narration of a story about a notable personality with the aim to
educate the audience. The main feature of a story reported in political rhetoric is the fact that the story gains power
because it reports real facts (Atkins & Finlayson, 2013).
      According to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) a story is instrumental to obtain three different forms of
reasoning through liaison: to generalise, hence to suggest the existence of a rule; to illustrate, therefore to
reinforce a rule formerly set; and to provide the audience with a model to be emulated.
      In contemporary politics, we have assisted to an extensive use of quotations by political leaders to support a
political point, with an increasing debate on who or what should be considered as an authoritative source in
political subjects. Citations consent an orator to talk using the voice of someone else and despite the fact that
political actors can refer to different kind of sources, they share the ability to identify themselves with the
authoritative references and, more broadly, with a certain culture and body of ideas. Atkins and Finlayson (2014)
distinguish among four different types of citations used by political actors in their argumentation: evidential,
cultural, party political and anecdotal quotations. Evidential quotations are those sources to which audiences
attribute the authority and expertise on the political matter under controversy, those which provide an indisputable
proof to support a political claim. Instead, referring to literary quotations does not only help the rhetorician to
support his argument but also to demonstrate his belonging to the cultural tradition of his audience. When quoting
political figures, the speaker attempts to identify his persona with party political traditions and values, to gain
approval through a well-known predecessor, or to stress differences with political opponents.
      Atkins and Finlayson noticed that in the past the authority cited was embodied by publications, “citations of
historic figures from the party’s intellectual tradition, and literary or philosophical culture” (2013, p. 10). However,
more recently political speakers have moved their interest towards ordinary people’s experiences. A study
conducted by Atkins and Finlayson in 2014 on British political leaders’ speeches delivered during party
conferences over the period 1945-2013 shows a gradual decline in the use of cultural and evidential quotations, a
certain degree of continuity in citing other political figures and, conversely, an increasingly emerging usage of
anecdotal stories on common individuals. In another study (Atkins & Finlayson, 2013) focused solely on the use
of anecdotal quotations. Here, the two scholars analysed the use of rhetorical argumentation by UK main political
leaders during party conferences over the period 1990-2010. Using the Rhetorical Political Analysis method to
categorise the type of argumentations, they noticed that, especially during the last decade, British politicians
gradually increased the use of anecdotes about ordinary people rather than specialist knowledge. This trend was
identified in the main three political parties object of the investigation: the conservative, liberal and labour parties.
Findings showed that argumentations in the form of anecdotes could be classified into two main categories, those
about ordinary people’s stories and those about the leaders’ themselves. Atkins and Finlayson (2013) argue that
modern politicians have adapted the Aristotelian’s definition of expert witness to respond to the current rhetorical
situation where the popular voice appeals more to the public because it is perceived as more authentic. Thus, the
recourse to anecdotes in political discourses is none other than the adaptation of political communication to the
emergence of democratic populism. It seems that UK politicians have identified this new ideological trend and
turned it to their advantage. Indeed, when quoting ordinary people, politician show that they are conscious about
people’ stories and that they value their ideas and beliefs. Whereas, in the case of anecdotes about the leaders’
experiences, political actors attempt to associate themselves with their audience, and by doing so they legitimise

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

their leadership position, fulfil the public role of a trustworthy authority and of a model to imitate.
      2.3.2 The Rhetorical Strategy of Argumentation and the Political Theory of Ideology
      According to Freeden (1998:5): “the study of ideology becomes the study of the nature of political thought:
its building blocks and the clusters of meaning with which it shapes the political worlds we populate”. Ideologies
represent an intrinsic and essential component of social life which ease political action (Freeden, 2006). Gramsci
considers ideology as “the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position” (Gramsci, 1971, p.
377). Ideology does not only represent a mental framework for the reasoning of a certain political thinking, but
also the basis on which a political actor articulates a reaction to external circumstances while attempting “to
persuade others to share the same perspective” (Finlayson, 2012, p. 8). Rhetorical argumentations allow political
actors to refer within their speech to a body of ideas, also called commonplaces, in order to make more convincing
statements. However, actors need to adapt the ideological thoughts to the dynamic interactions that occur between
themselves and the situation and culture in which the speech is performed. As we have said, Aristotle (2004)
considers three forms of rhetoric: logos, pathos and ethos. The appeal to ethos depends on the authority and
credibility ascribed to the speaker. The political theory of ideologies examines the way in which the authority is
specified and how it differs among various ideologies. This means that ideology can be considered also as “a
specification of legitimate authorities” (Finlayson, 2012, p. 10) and it is through characterization that political
actors seek to personify ideology, a certain political thinking or cause. However, the main function of arguments
from ethos remains the attempt to persuade through the identification of the audience with the speaker (Burke,
1969). Pathos represents the emotional register of a discourse, which is another essential form of motivation for
the political theory of ideology. Ideologies differ in the way they appeal to emotions not only based on the
categories they belong to but also, considering those of the same cluster, to the extent they provoke certain
feelings in the audience. The emotional tone is an essential component of ideologies and “traditions of political
thinking can be characterized by their particular emotional tones and their combination in specific contexts”
(Finlayson, 2012, p. 11). Finally, rhetorical argumentations appeal to the logos of the audience through the use of
quasi-logical arguments, where persuasion takes place when conclusion naturally derives from generally
acknowledged premises. Hence, more frequently than the conclusions premises carry the strength of the argument
and in particular the definition, which is the way the speaker chooses to employ a favourable term to present
something in support of his political claim. Laclau sustains that definitions are necessary components of an
ideological framework whose importance depends on their faculty “to induce chains of quasi-logical reasoning”
(Finlayson, 2012, p. 12) beyond their notional meaning.
      2.4 Conclusions
      The conceptual framework of this research has firstly analysed rhetoric and its function within the political
sphere, then considered how the rhetorical situation has evolved and its implications on political communication.
The theory of argumentation was instrumental to introduce the reader to the rhetorical strategy of quotations.
Finally, the literature review amplified the spectrum of the use of argumentation to the political theory of ideology,
where quotations represent an example of ideology. Evidence shows that in Western democracies, particularly in
the UK, modern political discourses are largely being influenced by the emergence of democratic populism, where
opinions and ideas of ordinary people are becoming of central importance within public debate. The studies
conducted by Atkins and Finlayson (2013; 2014) showed that in British politics over the last 50 years, if on the
one hand the use of evidential and cultural quotations is declining, on the other the use of anecdotes is increasing,
keeping party political citations constant. Thus, the aim of this research is to discover whether the analysis of the

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

use of quotations during political party leaders’ conference within the Italian context will generate the same results.
Specifically, the researcher looked at whether Italian political leaders are adapting the way they communicate to
the changing circumstances, in order to keep their legitimacy, and to be identified with the constituency’s
preferred political choice, or else whether they are maintaining an obsolete linguistic register which causes an
increase in the distance between political representatives and common citizens. To conduct the analysis the
researcher applied the Rhetorical Political Analysis method, which due to space limitations, will be discussed
more extensively in the methodology section.

     3. Methodology

     3.1 Research
     This study aims at using the RPA method to investigate the populist effect on political communication which
is an emerging trend observed in institutional speeches of other Western countries such as the UK, and whether it
applies to Italy within the context of discourses at political party conferences. More specifically, research
objectives are described as follows:
         To identify the type and use of quotations — a form of proof to legitimate rhetorical argumentations —
          used in leaders’ discourses during party conferences over the period 1990-2014.
         To determine whether the citation of anecdotes — as a type of quotation — represents an emerging
          regular practice among political leaders during party conferences over the period 1990-2014.
         To identify the relationship between the use of quotations and the circumstances in which political
          leaders deliver their speech.
     3.1.1 Research Philosophy
     There are four clusters of “explicit or implicit assumptions about the nature of social world” (Burrell &
Morgan, 1979, p. 1) through which social scientists approach a specific subject under observation.

                                 Figure 1   Assumptions on the Nature of Social Science
                                              Burrell & Morgan, 1979, p. 3

     The study of the ontological nature of a phenomenon concerns the nature of social reality, whether it is
determined by individuals’ perceptions, nominalism, or if it exists independently, realism (Guba & Lincoln, 1989).
Epistemological assumptions are defined as “a way of understanding and explaining how we know what we know”
(Crotty, 2003, p. 3), and consider knowledge either gained only through personal experiences, anti-positivism, or

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

also transmitted, positivism (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). Human Nature premises consider the connection between
peoples and the context, whether individual experiences are influenced by the circumstances, determinism, or if
they are free to create their own environment, voluntarism. Finally, about Methodological assumptions, social
scientists distinguish whether the approach to investigation should be based on the observation of reality,
ideographic, or scientific, nomothetic (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).
      Sociological research paradigms are conceptual frameworks based on the assumptions on the nature of social
science and are defined as “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems
and solutions to a community of practitioners” (Kuhn, 1970, p. viii). Identifying a philosophical paradigm allows
to frame a research adopting a commonly accepted approach. Defining the approach is instrumental to
comprehend the perspective of the project, to recognize the circumstances in which social phenomena occur and
to define a structure where to include the inferences of the study (Burke, 2007). There are two most common
research paradigms, which stand at the opposite poles of the same continuum: positivism and interpretivism.
Positivism attempts to demonstrate an existing theory by establishing a general pattern to evaluate a certain
phenomenon (Myers, 1997), while ignoring the dynamics of the cultural and social environment. Conversely, an
interpretivist philosophy does not reduce the complexity of the world to mere generalisations but “seeks to explain
the particular” (Hyde, 2000, p. 84) and to interpret the meaning of certain phenomena observed within their
natural context. However, there is a third form of research paradigm that the researcher considers more
appropriate for the purpose of this study: Postmodernism. Postmodernism assumes the existence of multiple and
ever-changing realities (Grbich, 2013), and that the essence of the world lies in social constructionism. In
particular, Positivism draws “attention to the social, historical, or political construction of knowledge, people, and
social relations” (Mitev, 2006, p. 316) and language covers a central role “in constructing social life” (Gill, 2005,
p. 172).
      The purpose of this study is to investigate the use of quotations as a form of rhetorical strategy used by
politicians during formal circumstances, party conferences, i.e., thus the aim is to conduct a discourse analysis by
studying political discourses. Discourse analysis is founded on a postmodern interpretation of reality because not
only it examines the meanings and structures of texts, but also considers how the form of speeches has been
influenced by “their social and historical situatedness” (Cheek, 2004, p. 1144). According to Postmodernism,
language is not “simply a neutral means of reflecting or describing the world” (Mikkelsen, 2005, p. 186) and it
depends upon the speakers and listeners to ascribe specific meaning to each idiom depending on the circumstances
in which communication occurs (Cheek, 2004). From an ontological perspective, the existence of multiple
realities means that there are also multiple truths, which means that discourse analysis does not lead to a single
knowledge. Whereas from an epistemological perspective discourse analysis only allows to obtain partial truths
(Gill, 2005), which means the manner individuals interpret the world is not absolute, rather, it depends on the
context and background. Furthermore, the way individuals perceive the world depends on social constructions
rather than on the essence of the world itself.
      3.1.2 Research Strategy
      According to Starks and Trinidad selecting the strategy “that is best suited to the line of inquiry is vital to
obtaining the desired results” (2007, p. 1372). Qualitative inquiry is any type of research that does not use
“statistical procedures or other means of quantification” to get to results (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 17), this
assumes that the world is socially constructed and that its construction varies according to different individuals
(Gall et al., 1999), and this analyses narrative data rather than facts and numbers (Easterby-Smith et al., 1991).

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

Furthermore, qualitative analysis performs an in-depth exploration of small and purposefully selected samples,
rather than large and randomly selected ones typical of quantitative inquiries (Patton, 1990). This means that
qualitative approaches privilege an intensive rather than extensive approach to the study of data. This is in line
with this research, which focuses its attention on twenty purposefully selected political speeches to conduct a
discourse analysis on the use of quotations as a means of political persuasion.
      Deductive and inductive approaches represent the two opposite processes of reasoning. The deductive
approach goes from generalisation to specification, hence applying a theory to practical situations. Conversely, an
inductive approach goes from specification to generalisation, meaning that it tries to identify a common rule to
explain single instances. However, there is a third approach, called abduction, which differs from the former
inasmuch it is not one-sided. Indeed, this approach represents a combination of both since it “starts from an
empirical basis, just like induction, but does not reject theoretical preconceptions” (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009,
p. 4), similarly to deduction. An abductive approach is more flexible, since it permits to analyse empirical data in
light of previous theories in the same field, a fact which represents a “source of inspiration for the discovery of
patterns that bring understanding” (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009, p. 4). This research has taken an abductive
approach, considering it aims to investigate empirical data in order to identify recurring patterns in the rhetorical
use of argumentation by Italian political leaders. Nonetheless, findings have been interpreted in light of existing
theories on the rhetorical use of argumentation in political discourses.
      3.1.3 Research Method
      The research method is defined as a set of “techniques or procedures used to gather and collect data related to
some research question or hypothesis” (Crotty, 2003:3). The purpose of this research is to investigate the type and
use of quotations in rhetorical argumentations within Italian political leaders’ speeches at party conferences.
Furthermore, the scope of the study is to identify whether the use of anecdotes, as a form of rhetorical strategy, is
becoming a common practice among politicians as a manifestation of an emerging populist trend in the Italian
context. Settled within that social context, this study research method is represented by discourse analysis, a form
of qualitative and investigative approach to research which is “best described as the study of talk and texts”
(Wetherell et al., 2001, p. i). Discourse analysis represents a reflexive method to research, since it attempts to
“account for how particular conceptions of the world become fixed and pass as truth” (Durrheim, 1997, p. 181)
instead of merely illustrating reality and formulating truth propositions.
      Discourse analysis can be conducted using a wide range of methods designed to investigate different aspects
of reality. According to Wodak and Meyer (2001), there is no universal agreement when it comes to defining the
term of discourse. Because theorists ascribe to discourse different levels of resonance and meaning, different
approaches to discourse analysis have been developed, varying among various theorists and diverse academic
backgrounds. Three elements have been considered in order to classify method, ontology, focus and purpose
(Glynos et al., 2009). Ontology considers the ontological postulation of a political discourse. Focus represents the
degree of analysis “linked to the objects of study typical of the approach” (Glynos et al., 2009, p. 5). Purpose
tends to identify the principal reasons that motivate the study of discourse by the analyst. These different
analytical approaches have in common a major concern with significance and subjectivity in the creation and
understanding of meaning (Glynos et al., 2009). It is based on this concern that a method is preferred to another to
examine a political discourse. Hence, the researcher has identified several approaches to discourses analysis, each
of them concerned with the investigation of a different side of political speeches. To best approach the study of the
rhetorical use of argumentations in political discourses, the researcher has considered the Rhetorical Political

The Use of Anecdotes and Other Rhetorical Means in Italian Political Leaders’ Discourse — The Application of the
Rhetorical Political Analysis Method to Investigate the Rise of Populism Within Political Communication from 1990 to 2014

Analysis (RPA) method as the most appropriate. This will be discussed in more details in the Data Analysis
section of this paper.
      3.2 Data Collection
      The researcher collected primary and secondary data to conduct a solid and exhaustive study about political
rhetoric and the use of argumentation in political communication. Primary data can be found entirely transcribed
and classified per type — anecdotal, evidential, cultural and party political quotations; and form — conjecture,
definition, quality and place of argumentations in Appendix 8.4 to 8.8.
      3.2.1 Primary and Secondary Data Collection
      The researcher collected primary data in the form of political speeches for the purpose of addressing “the
problem in question” (Curtis, 2008, p. 1). Data was available in the form of written texts, or audio/video-recorded
talks of leaders’ discourses during party conferences, which had been transcribed before conducting the analysis.
Secondary research appears in the form of literature review and has had the purpose of creating the framework
that assisted the researcher when evaluating primary data. Specifically, secondary research supports the researcher
in investigating the use of rhetorical argumentation in political discourses and provides with an in-depth
understanding of the evolution of the rhetorical situation in which speeches are delivered. Secondary data was
acquired in the forms of empirical and non-empirical academic papers, nationally recognized newspapers articles,
textbooks and other publications.
      3.2.2 Sampling
      Purposeful sampling was preferred to random sampling to analyse a group of Italian political leaders’
speeches in order to be as much inclusive as possible of the general political communication trends within the
Italian context. Therefore, the researcher attempted to select information-rich samples, which Patton defines as
“those from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the research”
(1990, p. 169). The final sample consists of twenty leaders’ speeches at conferences, of which two illustrative
tables are available in Appendix 8.3. Political discourses were chosen based on the following criteria:
          Discourses delivered by political leaders during party conferences. In most of the cases, the leader
           coincided with the Party Secretary. In few cases the leader was identified with the Party President.
           Therefore, the researcher had to consider each party’s organisational structure before determining the
           political actors performing the role of the leader.
          Discourses delivered during party conferences held over the period 1990-2014. Unlike British politics,
           where party conferences are held on a yearly basis, in Italy they occur more irregularly. The majority of
           political parties organise a congress every five years. Therefore, the interval of time 1990-2014 was
           divided into five sub-periods, and the researcher selected four representative discourses per each interval
           of time. By keeping a constant and balanced sample of speeches between left-wing and right-wing
           parties per each period, the researcher was able to trace a path of the evolution of the use of quotations
           in Italian political speeches.
          Discourses delivered by leaders belonging to the main left, right or centre-wing political parties at the
           time. The figure in Appendix 8.1 shows the twelve most representative political parties selected for the
           analysis of the leaders’ speeches at conferences. The high number and complexity of parties reflects the
           significant fragmentation of the Italian party system, but it allowed the researcher to investigate a broad
           spectrum of the evolution of Italian political communication. The researcher organised the twelve
           parties into four ideal schools of thought, based on the Christian Democratic, the Communist, the

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