The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Rhetoric, 1952-1996


Bonikowski, Bart, and Noam Gidron. 2016. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Rhetoric, 1952-1996.” Social Forces 94: 1593-621.
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This paper examines populist claims-making in U.S. electoral discourse. We define populism as a rhetorical strategy that juxtaposes the virtuous populace with a corrupt elite and views the former as the sole legitimate source of political power. In contrast to past literature, we argue that populism is not a stable ideological attribute of political actors but rather a gradational quality of political claims. This conceptualization allows us to systematically measure how the use of populism is affected by contextual factors. Our empirical case consists of 2,482 speeches given by American presidential candidates during general elections between 1952 and 1996. We offer an analytical strategy that uses automated text analysis to measure populism at the level of individual speech acts. Populism is shown to be a common feature of presidential politics among both Democrats and Republicans. Its prevalence, however, varies with candidates’ relative positions in the political field. We show that the likelihood of a candidate’s reliance on populist claims is directly proportional to his distance from the center of power (in this case, the presidency); in other words, populism is a strategic tool of political challengers and particularly those who have legitimate claims to outsider status. By examining the temporal fluctuation in populist rhetoric, its shifting use on the political left and right, its variation across geographic regions and field positions, and the changing content of populist categories, our paper contributes to the literature on the relational nature of political discourse.

Last updated on 07/19/2016