Yes, Ronald Reagan's Rhetoric Was Unique—But Statistically, How Unique?


Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey is a reader in political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her most recent books include From the Corn Laws to Free Trade and Deliberating Monetary Policy.

Edward Yager is a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His teaching and research interests focus on modern democratic theory, American political thought, and the American presidency, and he is the author of Ronald Reagan's Journey.

Saadi Lahlou is director of the Institute of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and scientific director of the Cognitive Technologies programme at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (Paris).


We use automated textual analysis to compare Ronald Reagan's rhetoric with that of presidents Woodrow Wilson through Barack Obama, using their State of the Union speeches. We are able to assign statistical significance to the thematic content, and to depict spatially the shifting dimensionality in themes used by presidents. We find strong evidence for Reagan's usage of the civil religion rhetoric: over half (59%) of the discourse in his seminal and 48% in his State of the Union speeches focus on civil religion. We also find an apparent shift in modern presidential rhetoric, from themes concerned with (1) institutions, to ones focused more on (2) individuals, families, and children.