Rhetoric and Political Power: Analyzing Language and Persuasion in Political Discourse

Cite this article as: Isa, S.M. & Zayyad, K.M. (2023). Rhetoric and Political Power: Analyzing Language and Persuasion in Political Discourse. Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture, (2)2, 31-38. www.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2023.v02i02.004. 

Sulaiman Muhammad Isa PhD

Department of English, Al-Qalam University Katsina, Katsina State
E-mail: sulaimanisa409@gmail.com


Kudu Muhammad Zayyad
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State
E-mail: kudumuhammadzayyad@gmail.com


This abstract presents a research paper that examines the pragmatic influence of rhetorical strategies in political speeches. The paper acknowledges that language manipulation by politicians can result in threats and hate speeches, posing a challenge to peace, unity, and progress. The theoretical framework used is Fairclough's Model and Analytical Framework, and the methodology employed is qualitative research. The data for the study were collected from print media advertisements in Nigerian newspapers during the period of political campaigning for the March 2015 general elections. The data primarily consist of campaign speeches delivered at rallies by politicians from the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC). Content analysis is used to analyze the data in line with the research framework. The study emphasizes the contextual nature of rhetoric, highlighting the importance of the speaker-audience relationship within the broader sociopolitical context. The conclusion suggests that rhetorical strategy is a significant aspect of political analysis and can contribute to understanding the operation of political power in society.

Keywords: Pragmatics, Rhetoric, Language, Politics, Propaganda


The interconnection between language and politics is widely acknowledged in the field of rhetoric and discourse studies. Language plays a vital role in politics and is considered an indispensable tool in this domain. Scholars have emphasized how language shapes political behaviour and facilitates shared understanding between political actors and their audience. For instance, Chilton (2007) highlights that language enables political actors to establish a common perspective with their audience regarding concepts of usefulness, harm, goodness, evil, justice, and injustice. Consequently, language becomes instrumental in realizing political aspirations and goals. Successful political discourse relies on the effective utilization and manipulation of language to persuade the audience. However, a significant challenge arises when politicians employ manipulative language that can lead to the use of threats and hate speeches, thereby jeopardizing peace, unity, and societal progress. In light of this issue, this paper aims to examine the pragmatic influence of rhetorical strategies employed in political speeches.

Language and Politics

The language of politics is persuasive. In their bid to win political offices, politicians choose language strategies that will aid in achieving their aim considering the power of language to influence thoughts and to persuade and control people‘s behaviour. Politics is one of the realities in our social world. Since language is the creator of the social world, it, therefore, becomes inevitable for language and politics to be intrinsically linked. Language is indeed central to politics. The view of the relationship between language and politics is age-long. According to Fairclough and Fairclough (2012 p. 19), Aristotle was the earliest person to engage on the subject of the relationship between language and politics, and his view on the matter is that since human beings are political animals, speech is an asset to which they enact their political nature. Aristotle captures this view in his popular extract from his book Politics:

“But man is a political animal in a sense in which a bee is not, or any other gregarious animal. Nature, as we say, does nothing without some purpose; and she has endowed man alone among the animals with the power of speech. Speech is something different from voice, which is possessed by other animals also and used by them to express pain or pleasure… Speech, on the other hand, serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust. The real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have the perception of good and evil, just and unjust, etc. It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.”

(Ackrill, 1987 in Fairclough and Fairclough 2012 p. 19)

Aristotle's perspective on the relationship between language and politics, as highlighted by Fairclough and Fairclough (ibid), asserts that politics involves action aimed at achieving the highest goods through decision-making processes that emerge from deliberations. This quotation emphasizes the significance of "deliberation" (language use) as the primary resource for making important decisions within a political framework. Scholars have extensively examined the connection between language and politics. Chilton (2007 p. 6) succinctly captures the essential role of language in politics, stating that "the doing of politics is predominantly constituted in language." Chilton's statement underscores the notion that politics exists and operates fundamentally through language. Consequently, the current language used in Nigerian politics reflects the unique political circumstances of the country, highlighting the intricate complexities of its nascent democracy and political development.

Rhetorical Strategies

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in rhetorical strategies as a means of analyzing political discourse. Unlike traditional approaches that view rhetoric solely as a form of speech, this new scholarship considers rhetoric not only as a subject of investigation but also as the foundation for an analytical framework in the study of political language. Scholars such as Finlayson, Martin, and Atkins have spearheaded this approach, known as Rhetorical Political Analysis, which explores the role of political language, ideology, and strategy (Atkins and Finlayson, 2013; Finlayson, 2004, 2007; Finlayson and Martin, 2008; Martin, 2013; Atkins et al., 2014). Their objective is not only to highlight the contributions that conceptualizing political language as rhetoric can make to political science but also to demonstrate the advantages of incorporating concepts from rhetoric scholarship into the analysis of political language. The primary emphasis of this approach is on the persuasive dimensions of political language. Work on rhetorical political analysis thus has a counterpart in post-positivist studies of public policy, which emphasize the argumentative nature of policy deliberation as opposed to instrumental-rational models of decision-making (Dryzek, 2010; Fischer, 2003; Fischer and Gottweis, 2012; Gottweis, 2006, 2012; Griggs and Howarth, 2013; Turnbull, 2013; Zittoun, 2014). What these approaches have in common is that they all see a greater role for rhetoric insofar as it emerges with renewed importance from the acceptance of epistemological contingency and in accounting for the pragmatic aims of political discourse, found in the dynamic exchange between speaker and audience.

Rhetoric encompasses three key aspects: logos, ethos, and pathos, each serving a distinct purpose in persuasive communication.

Logos refers to the use of logical reasoning and arguments to persuade an audience. It emphasizes the importance of appealing to reason and employing sound logic in presenting claims. The clarity of the claim, the coherence of its reasoning, and the effectiveness of supporting evidence contribute to the persuasive power of logos (Walton, 2007).

Ethos, on the other hand, pertains to the credibility and trustworthiness of the speaker or source. It encompasses the speaker's traits and characteristics that contribute to their ability to effectively deliver an argument. The reliability of the message is closely tied to the audience's perception of the speaker's ethics, trustworthiness, and sincerity (Boone and Kurtz, 1999). The believability of the speaker plays a significant role in the persuasive impact of ethos.

Pathos involves the use of emotional appeals to evoke specific feelings in the audience, such as anger, compassion, fear, disgust, pride, deference, or shame. Emotional appeals are powerful tools in persuasion, as they can stir the audience's emotions and elicit a desired response. In political debates and various contexts, emotions often play a central role in influencing people's attitudes and actions (ibid).

Traditionally, rhetoric has been analyzed primarily as a subject of political analysis. It has been conceptualized in terms of specific speech genres or as a set of techniques, often limited to oratory, aimed at persuading an audience during deliberation processes (Martin, 2013; Condor et al., 2013). In this context, political speeches by leaders serve as a prominent example. The ability to persuade other political actors and the public is crucial for leaders in gaining, utilizing, and maintaining power (Tulis, 1987). In democratic systems, argumentation not only helps in decision-making but also serves the purpose of justifying decisions, as they can be subject to robust questioning (Atkins, 2011).

Theoretical framework

In this study, Fairclough's (1995) Model and Analytical Framework will be employed as the primary model of analysis. According to Rodgers et al. (2005) cited in Mirzaee & Hamidi (2012), Fairclough's framework comprises three levels of analysis: the text, the discursive practice, and the socio-cultural practice.

At the first level, the analysis focuses on the text itself, whether spoken or written. This involves examining the language structures and linguistic features present in the discursive event under study.

The second level of analysis involves the examination of the discursive practice surrounding the production and interpretation of texts. This includes considering the social and contextual factors that influence the use of language and the specific rhetorical strategies employed in political speeches.

The third level of analysis, the socio-cultural practice, delves into the broader social context and practices within which the discursive events take place. This level of analysis considers the power dynamics, social structures, and cultural influences that shape and are shaped by political discourse.

By employing Fairclough's model and analytical framework, this study aims to analyze political speeches at each of these three levels. It seeks to uncover the linguistic features, rhetorical strategies, and socio-cultural implications embedded within the texts, discursive practices, and broader social contexts of political communication.

Method of Data Collection

The methodology chosen for this study is qualitative research. The data for analysis were collected from print media advertisements found in various national newspapers in Nigeria, namely The Nation, Premium Times, and News Express. The selected newspapers covered the period between January and March 2015, which coincided with the intensive political campaign leading up to the March 2015 general elections in Nigeria.

The primary source of data for this study was campaign speeches delivered at rallies by politicians affiliated with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC). These speeches were considered significant examples of political discourse during the election period and were analyzed to examine the pragmatic influence of rhetorical strategies.

By using qualitative research methods and drawing data from print media advertisements and campaign speeches, this study aims to gain in-depth insights into the rhetorical strategies employed in political speeches and their impact on the audience. Qualitative research allows for a detailed examination of the language and communication strategies used by politicians, providing a comprehensive understanding of the pragmatic aspects of political discourse.

Analytical Procedure

Content analysis is adopted for the analytical procedure of this study in analyzing the data obtained against the background of the framework of analysis for the research. For this study, references would be made to some of the speeches and write-ups as made by politicians at different points during the 2015 electioneering processes in Nigeria. The rhetoric strategy, a linguistic element, is a manifested feature of the language of political propaganda.


The analysis of this study centres on identifying some of the rhetorical strategies employed by the speakers to market their identity (and ideology) and that of their party. It might also have an obvious answer but you have to ask the question to make a point, to persuade or for literary effect. Though a rhetorical question does not require a direct answer, in many cases it may be intended to start a discussion or at least draw an acknowledgement that the listener understands the intended message. Political discourses are generally aimed at mind control or manipulation (van Dijk, 1995, 2006). Politicians usually employ persuasive language to make the audience accept their ideology. They often employ emotional arguments and language to arouse the interest of the audience.

The extracts presented below are taken from the speech delivered by former president Goodluck Jonathan during the flag-off of the PDP 2015 campaign on Thursday, January 8, 2015, as reported in The Nation newspaper on Friday, January 9, 2015.

 “…Of course, you have seen…we have just introduced our governorship candidates and you see how many of them that is of your age bracket. Which other party will give that kind of opportunity?

…They want to take us to the old days when nobody saw voter’s cards but results were announced. They want to take us to the old days when ballot papers would be in South Africa and results would be announced. Are you going back to the old days?

…When we were young, we were told that at Independence, Nigeria, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and even India were all at the same level. That was what we were told when I was in secondary school and the university. Now all those countries have left us behind and now some people want to take us backward. Do you want to go backwards? Nigerian youths, do you want to go backwards?

…I told you I was going to address things and I will be very brief. They talk about insecurity. That they will fight insecurity. And you will ask, are our armed forces weak? Are the Nigerians in the Armed Forces weak? If we have problems what is the cause?—equipment. And somebody who wakes up and tells young people 23 years old that he wants to fight insecurity, ask him when he was the head of government did he buy one rifle for a Nigerian soldier?

…What did we do? We assembled some young Nigerians that are IT gurus and we developed the e-wallet system through which the farmers now get their fertilizers directly and nobody is cheating the government again. Is that not the way to stop corruption?

…If somebody tells you that the best way to fight corruption is to arrest your uncle or father and show him on television, well, you won’t stop corruption, you will even encourage corruption. I used to tell people and I will also address press conferences so that people can ask me direct questions. Armed robbery is still with us, despite the fact that we are shooting (death penalty) armed robbers. Is that stopping armed robbery?

…Some people say they are finding corruption… some of you know, I am not addressing people of 20 years and below but people from 30 years and so on… Nigerians go to fuel stations and sleep overnight to buy fuel or tip those who sell fuel to buy fuel. They hoard fuel and they benefit from the hoarding. Who are those who benefitted from hoarding fuel? Since we came on board, have you suffered? Do you need to bribe someone before you get fuel?

…When the crisis of insecurity came up, we had nothing. So to get things very quickly, we used some vendors to make procurement. But now what we are doing is government to government. Now any new procurement we are doing whether for the air force, navy or army it’s government to government, so there is nothing like corruption anymore. Even if we have some issues, maybe… is that not the way to fight corruption?

…They said that is the way to fight corruption. So immediately I suspect your uncle, I can just crate him and throw him into Kirikiri. Is that the way to stop corruption?

…Do you want Nigeria to be a jungle society? Immediately I suspect that you have done something wrong I just ask the police or army to arrest you and throw you in jail. Is that the country you want? They say to be strong is to jail people indiscriminately for 300 years. Is that where you want to go?

…They say we are not planning, we are not focused but we have cleaned up the corruption in fertilizer distribution in the country. The farm inputs are getting to the farmers and our import bills, the money we use in buying things from outside is coming down. Can you get that without planning?

You are no longer queuing up and leaving your cars in fuel stations. Can you do that without planning?

I believe that a few years back some young people have not seen trains except when you travel abroad and you have never boarded a train. Now our trains are moving. Can you do that without planning?

In the power sector, we are in Lagos; the Egbin power sector got burnt in 2005 and remained so until now when we are fixing it. We have been able to finish the privatization of the power sector. This is an interface period but you already know that the generation capacity is almost double. Can you do that without planning?

...I came up with a special scholarship that you must, first of all, make a First Class in the university. We have scholarships for everybody but you must first of all make First Class from your university and then we test the best brains and send them to the best 25 universities in the world. Can someone who has no plans for the future of this country do that? Can somebody who does not think about the Nigerian youth do that? Do you want to go back to those days when they had no plans for us?

In Jonathan's speech, the use of rhetorical strategies, particularly rhetorical questions, is evident to engage the audience and persuade them towards his viewpoint. Rhetorical questions serve to stimulate the audience's thinking and make his words more effective in achieving his goals. This speech highlights the broader importance of political rhetoric as a persuasive tool, even if it is considered in a limited sense as a set of techniques.

Political rhetoric has relevance across various domains of political communication, ranging from formal debates and ceremonial speeches to policymaking and the informal public sphere. It encompasses not only the use of persuasive techniques but also reflects deeper aspects of power, including the knowledge used to support arguments (logos), the contestation of personalities and values (ethos), and the appeal to emotions (pathos). Additionally, rhetoric encompasses the meaning of language itself, which frames questions and ideologies, shapes identities, and maintains power relations, often through the use of figurative rhetoric such as metaphors.

Moreover, the significance of rhetoric in this speech extends beyond its content to its performative aspect. The performative aspect includes the situated practice of speaking, considering the interaction between the speaker and the audience. It recognizes the inter-subjective relationship and the impact of the speech on the audience.

Hence, Jonathan's speech demonstrates the utilization of rhetorical strategies to effectively communicate and persuade the audience. It highlights the multifaceted nature of rhetoric and its role in shaping political discourse and power dynamics.

However, Van Djik (1995) revealed that politics influences and shapes language greatly. Since politics involves wielding power, and political actions are enacted through discursive formations (van Djik, 1995), it, therefore, becomes important for linguistic/semiotic resources to be used in ways that will enable politicians to achieve their aim of wielding power. To win elections in politics, politicians are usually conscious of the need for them to persuade and convince the electorate using different means. The issue of language and politics is easily perceivable since one works as a tool to achieve the objectives of the other hence it deals with cohesion for a better focus and expression of ideas, and feelings, to bring about a perfect understanding of the motive of politics to the role of language. While most of the opinions above on the role of language in politics seem to echo the centrality of language to politics, Awonusi (2008:10) considers the relationship between language and politics in a somewhat different way when he says that “the relationship between politics and language is bi-directional”. By this, Awonusi (ibid) means that language influences politics as much as politics influences language.

Responding to the Babatunde Fashola has this to say:

So if after six years he has not been able to explain to you what he is doing with your time, with your resources – 52 % revenue formula, do you want to continue another four years?

(“Fashola Lambasts Jonathan over speech at the Lagos PDP Rally” Premium Times, Friday, January 9, 2015)

Fashola employs rhetorical questions as a counter to Jonathan's statements, posing questions to the audience for which they already have answers. The purpose is to remind them not to be swayed by Jonathan's words. This aligns with Aristotle's Rhetoric (2006), which categorizes rhetoric into three occasions based on time and an audience's decision-making process. The occasions include deliberative or legislative rhetoric (concerned with the future), judicial or forensic rhetoric (focused on decisions about the past), and epideictic rhetoric (about the present). Deliberative rhetoric aims to guide the audience towards actions that benefit their interests, forensic rhetoric seeks justice, and epideictic rhetoric praises or criticizes a subject (Aristotle, 2006).

This perspective aligns with Chilton's (2007) view that political discourse revolves around representation, where political actors employ language to legitimize their positions and justify their actions. Understanding how discourses are represented, produced, and reproduced becomes crucial in analyzing the relationship between language and politics. While individuals possess their own shared ideas and attitudes, which can be deeply rooted, elite or political discourse holds significant influence in shaping or reinforcing such attitudes through the power of language. Bayram (2010: 24) supports this notion by asserting that language is closely intertwined with our social and cognitive development from childhood, as well as our formation of identity. Similarly, Fairclough (2015) highlights that language can both accurately represent and distort the world around us. It has the potential to rhetorically obscure realities and construct them ideologically to serve unjust power relations.

Also responding to criticisms from the APC, PDP chairman Adamu Mu’azu says:

“How can the gang of five governors who left PDP in 2013 extricate themselves from those accusations when they were all part of the decision-making organs of the party?

(Propaganda won’t save you: News Express, February 2, 2015).

Skilled speakers and writers possess the ability to persuade and influence others, particularly evident in the realm of political propaganda, especially during campaigns. Politicians strategically interject their opinions to shape the thinking of the audience, aiming to garner support and alignment. In this context, rhetorical questions play a crucial role in eliciting agreement from the audience. Propaganda utilizes rhetoric to evoke strong emotional identification rather than relying on rational persuasion (O'Shaughnessy, 2004, p. 16). Analyses of political speech indicate that political rhetoric encompasses both figurative and argumentative elements, and it encompasses both ceremonial and deliberative aspects. The language used in politics possesses distinct features that set it apart from other forms of discourse. We can characterize political language as the manifestation of the impact, force, and power of language within the realm of politics. Beard (2000) asserts that the language of politics enables us to comprehend how language is employed by those seeking or exercising power. This suggests that language serves as an accessory to the demands of politics. The success of politicians, whether in candidacy or in implementing policies, hinges on what they say and the support they receive from citizens. Consequently, it is conceivable that politics has become inherently tied to linguistic matters, while language itself has become a subject of political significance.


This study highlights the contextual nature of rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between the speaker and the audience within a given context. It underscores that rhetoric serves as a tool that both reflects and contributes to the social structure. Specifically, the finding suggests that rhetoric enables individuals to uphold political differentiation and resist changing their perspectives.


Rhetorical strategy is not only an important focus of political analysis but can also be integrated into an analytical framework to conceptualize the functioning of political power in society. The language employed by politicians follows a consistent pattern: they frequently employ rhetorical strategies and rely heavily on persuasive language. This style of communication aims to effectively convey messages and leave a lasting impression on the electorate or audience. Moreover, politicians strategically utilize rhetoric to evoke emotions and connect with their followers, thereby sustaining their support and maintaining a strong base of followership. Rhetoric serves as a tool for political contestation, involving a rational discourse that also encompasses competing values and is often accompanied by intense emotions.


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