We're told that in a democracy, the people decide how things will be run, and there's a very real sense in which this is true. But democratic citizenship is not a one way street: Citizens participate in a political process whose rules help determine the options among which they can choose, vote for candidates who try to gain support through rhetoric and campaign tactics that run the gamut from honest debate to disinformation campaigns, and live in an ever-changing media environment that bombards them with more information each day than anyone could sanely possibly consume, let alone comprehend. Political elites play a large role in shaping the context within which democratic citizenship must take place. Exploring the nature and impact of the influence of political actors on citizens and the political process drives both my dissertation and the research I will conduct in the future.
My dissertation reflects this question by examining political values as they are expressed and invoked by political elites in campaign rhetoric. Values are the enduring, abstract beliefs about the world that individuals use to make decisions about everything from candidates for public office to personal relationships to commercial products. In one's personal life, it is often a simple matter to relate one's values to a given decision or situation. In the political realm, however, it is often elite actors who connect the dots between values and political matters for voters. Yet the way in which elites talk about values has been a relatively understudied topic of inquiry. In my dissertation, I address this gap by performing a content analysis of presidential candidates' campaign announcements from 1976 through 2004. This previously-unexplored data set allows me to explore which values these high-profile political elites invoke, by classifying candidates' statements according to a typology of values adapted from psychological work in this area, and thus enables me to determine what relationship the political values that undergird candidates' rhetoric has to such factors as partisanship, candidate characteristics, electoral context, and electoral success and failure. I begin with an examination of the relationship between partisanship and values, and find that each party's campaign rhetoric has a consistent association with particular categories of values: Republicans with values of traditionalism and conformity, Democrats with values of benevolence and universalism. I also find that the degree to which each party's candidates invoke these values reflects strategic considerations, with candidates from the party out of power oftentimes emulating the party in power. Other categories of values, such as self-direction and security, are more fluid, and candidates' usage of them tends to change in accordance with electoral prospects and external events. Self-directional or libertarian rhetoric, in particular, is linked to candidates casting themselves as outsiders challenging the political establishment. From here, I examine several specific cases, including the differences between longshot or outsider candidates and more mainstream or establishment ones, and the impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the rhetoric of the 2004 presidential campaign.
The data set I have assembled for this dissertation is a rich one that captures the debates and evolutions of the two major parties over several tumultuous decades; it is also one that will grow with each presidential campaign. I anticipate that it will be a source of several additional projects upon the conclusion of my dissertation, including but not limited to analyses of issue framing, candidatesí image-crafting, descriptions of the presidency, and the similarities and differences within and between various subsets of candidates.
In addition to my dissertation and planned, related projects, my research addresses other topics. A recent collaborative paper, presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Meeting and the Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties conference, found that superdelegatesí endorsements of either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries were affected less by superdelegatesí ties to the Clintons than to demography and descriptive representation. Based on positive feedback at the conference, we are revising this paper for journal submission later this year, and we expect to develop several additional papers in this area of inquiry. This paper reflects my ongoing interest in electoral politics and in assembling new and unusual data sets to explore new areas of inquiry.
I also believe that the political messages and underpinnings of popular culture merit scholarly attention, because shared culture can both reinforce prevailing attitudes and values as well as demonstrate how values and attitudes are changing. Just as studying how presidential candidates invoke different values in their campaign rhetoric helps us understand the information environment in which citizens make political decisions, so too does studying how popular entertainment depicts political institutions, public officials, and cultural and political norms illuminate the cultural context within which citizens live their lives, political and otherwise.