Date of Award
Honors Thesis (Open Access)
Colby College. Government Dept.
The term “populism” has been thrown around recently—heedless of any cohesive meaning—to describe a wide variety of politics. But can we define populism with sufficient clarity and precision as to make it a useful term with which to analyze political rhetoric? This thesis weaves together the fragmented literature on populism to invent a unique definition: populism in the United States is a mode of political persuasion characterized by an effort to promote the interests of “the people,” understood to be a monolithic and moral group of ordinary Americans, against a “corrupt” elite or establishment which obstructs these interests. Using this new definition, this thesis analyses 3,147 speeches from thirty-eight American presidential campaigns between 1952 and 2020. The study ambitiously employs several distinct methods: quantitative readability statistics and dictionary-based content analysis, and qualitative rubric-based content analysis and literary analysis. When analyzed together, the results of the diverse study paint a clearer picture of populism in the United States. The candidates identified as populist indeed have in common a specific discourse in which they defend the interests of “the people” against a “corrupt” elite, and it is important to have specific terminology to describe this phenomenon.
populism, democracy, elite, campaign, rhetoric, speech
Recommended CitationPfau, Julia E., "Us and Them: Populism in the United States" (2021). Honors Theses. Paper 1323.