Trump and Sanders aren’t blazing new trails.

Roundup
tags: election 2016, populism, Bernie Sanders, Trump



Bart Bonikowski is an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University, where his research focuses on nationalism and populism in the United States and Europe. Follow him at @bartbonikowski. Noam Gidron is a graduate student in Harvard’s government department.

Populism is hard to ignore in the current primary elections. Donald Trump, the self-described political outsider, is promising to “make America great again” by defending the people against Washington insiders, whom he portrays as self-interested, corrupt and incompetent. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont touts his track record as a longtime advocate of working people, ready to take on Wall Street and a corrupt campaign finance system.

As a result, many pundits proclaim that this election is ushering in a new era of populist politics.

But is populism really uncommon in U.S. presidential discourse? Our analysis of the past 12 presidential elections, presented in a forthcoming Social Forces article, suggests otherwise. Populism appears frequently in presidential campaigns, and it does so in a patterned and predictable way.

We examined all of the speeches given by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates between 1952 and 1996 in the two months before Election Day (no speeches were available for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign). Using a combination of close reading and automated methods, we identified speeches that contained populist language. Like other scholars, we defined populism as a moral opposition between the people, seen as the rightful source of political power, and corrupt elites who have abandoned the common good for the pursuit of their own interests. ...




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