We’ve probably all been in a situation where we felt the need to justify or ‘legitimise’ our behaviour or actions in some way. This legitimisation usually takes the form of providing arguments which can explain our actions or even our opinions about something. There can be many reasons why we do this; to gain social acceptance; perhaps an attempt to get or maintain power; to improve relationships or maybe to achieve popularity or fame. Whatever the reason, in most cases when we do this, we’re looking to get the support or approval of the person or people that we’re talking to.
A good example of where we see this process of legitimisation in action is in political discourse. Politicians (or ‘political actors’) need the support of the electorate and they must therefore justify their actions, non-actions or their ideological standing on a particular issue in order to gain that support. Researcher Antonio Reyes suggests that speakers use five key strategies of legitimisation in order to achieve their political goals. They are: 1) emotions (particularly fear), 2) a hypothetical future, 3) rationality, 4) voices of expertise and 5) altruism. To illustrate how these strategies are employed, Reyes uses examples from speeches given by two leaders in two different armed conflicts, George W. Bush on Iraq (2007) and Barack Obama on Afghanistan (2009), with both speakers seeking to justify military presence in what has become known as the ‘War on Terror’.
Reyes says that the first strategy uses an appeal to emotions which allows the speaker to ‘skew the opinion’ of the audience about a specific issue. He states that since 2001, political leaders have often drawn on the events of 9/11 to activate people’s emotions in order to legitimise future actions. The date is so engraved in people’s memories that any mention of it sets off the emotions related to the event. So when Bush said (11 Jan 2007) ‘These are the same folks that came and killed about 3,000 of our citizens’ (all bold font appears in original article) and Obama said (1 Dec 2009) ‘On September 11 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people’ Reyes suggests that the sentences trigger emotions which are ideal to later ‘legitimise political actions based on the effect of those emotions’.
Another strategy that Reyes identifies is one of posing a hypothetical threat in the future to justify actions in the present. In this case the political actor usually refers to a cause in the past (here 9/11) which may happen again in the future and which therefore requires action in the present in order to stop that future threat. Reyes provides an example from Bush (11 Jan 2007) when he said ‘If we were to fail in Iraq, the enemy would follow us here to America’.
The third strategy is legitimisation through rationality. Here, the political actor is said to present the legitimisation process as a process where all the options have been considered and a decision has been reached after a ‘heeded, evaluated and thoughtful’ procedure. Linguistically, the strategy is often framed by clauses such as ‘after consultation with our allies’ or verbs relating to mental and verbal processes such as ‘explore’ and ‘consult’.
The fourth strategy is to draw on voices of expertise to strengthen the politician’s position. An example given comes from Bush (11 Jan 2007) when he said ‘and so our commanders looked at the plan and said, Mr President, it’s not going to work until – unless we support – provide more troops.......’ where a direct quote is used from authoritative figures who have been consulted for their expert opinions.
Reyes final strategy is one of altruism, meaning that political actors will often propose their actions as being beneficial to others. Examples are taken from the speech of Bush (11 Jan 2007) who said ‘It’s time to act not only for our sake, it’s time to act for the sake of the people in Iraq’ and Obama (1 Dec 2009) who said ‘Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people’. Reyes states that actions are more likely to be accepted if they are framed as being beneficial to others, particularly towards the poor, innocent or vulnerable members of a society.
In his conclusion, Reyes claims that even though these two political figures have differing ideologies and that they use very different styles to present their arguments, they nevertheless employ similar strategies to legitimise their political agendas. Of course, political discourse may be said to be planned or pre-planned and Reyes calls for further studies to test the strategies in other speech events, suggesting that such strategies may also be used in casual conversation.
Reyes, A. Strategies of legitimization in political discourse: from words to actions. Discourse and Society 22(6) 781-807.
This summary was written by Sue Fox