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A Politics of the People: Comparing the Use of Populist Discourse in the 2016 US Presidential Election

Author:

Joel Pearce

London School of Economics and Political Science, GB
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Abstract

The 2016 US presidential election saw Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both being described as “populists”, despite running for different parties and coming from different political traditions. This paper empirically assesses the validity of this claim by conducting computer-assisted thematic analysis of their speeches during the presidential primaries. It explores the puzzle of populism being associated with diverse political positions by mapping out the candidates’ discourse, finding that both used populist themes but in strikingly different ways. Whilst Trump presented a divide between the American people and the perceived threats of Islam and immigration, Sanders contrasted the people with economic elites. They had a different approach to the campaign, with Trump framing it as a battle between him and his opponents and Sanders as an opportunity for people to come together against the powerful. Most interestingly, their discourse on trade showed little overlap: Trump presented it in both nationalist and populist terms whereas Sanders associated it with a broader theme of lost opportunities for young Americans. Existing theories account for different aspects of this contrast but none provide a comprehensive explanation of varieties of populism on their own.

 

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How to Cite: Pearce, J., 2018. A Politics of the People: Comparing the Use of Populist Discourse in the 2016 US Presidential Election. LSE Undergraduate Political Review, 1, pp.22–57.
Published on 19 Jan 2018.
Peer Reviewed

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