Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. Government Dept.


Joseph Reisert

Second Advisor

Dan Shea


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