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Photo: “Proud Boy with Confederates in Pittsboro (2019 Oct)“, by Anthony Crider licensed under CC BY 2.0. Hue modified from the original

Fahey, James J. “Building Populist Discourse: An Analysis of Populist Communication in American Presidential Elections, 1896-2016.” Social Science Quarterly 102, no. 4 (July 2021): 1268–1288.


This article examined the history of the use of populist frames in American presidential campaign discourse in order to answer a set of interrelated questions about how populist discourse is constructed and employed. Using a novel database of presidential campaign speeches (n = 189) from 63 major candidates from 1896 to 2016, I coded these speeches for presence or absence of a set of 11 populist frames. Mokken scale analysis was conducted to determine if populist discourse is “built” in a logical way by political candidates. Regression analysis was conducted to measure if outsider candidates were more likely to employ populist framing. Eight of the 11 frames comprise a stable Mokken scale that measures populist discourse. Results show that anti-bureaucratic and nativist frames do not load onto the same factor as other populist frames, suggesting that they may be measuring a separate concept. Candidates are more likely to use generic, less threatening aspects of the populist frame than they are to use illiberal, “risky” frames. Less experienced and third-party candidates are also more likely to use populist discourse. Populism is a flexible but coherent set of discursive frames present across modern campaign history. Populist framings are most commonly utilized by outsider candidates.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.