Explaining the Rights Revolutions? The Rise (and Fall?) of Rights Themes in Presidential Rhetoric
43 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 24 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2011
This paper traces trends in the discussion of rights claims related to the "rights revolutions" of the 20th and 21st centuries in presidential rhetoric. Reviewing hundreds of major presidential addresses from 1933-2011, I find that substantive rights related to the "rights revolutions" have had a modest place in presidential rhetoric, and that references to these rights claims have been declining steadily over time. Although this trend has been influenced by the rise of conservative Republicans to the presidency since the 1970s, Democrats who served prior to this period often neglected to speak about important rights (such as economic rights and social welfare rights), and more recent Democratic presidents have reinforced, rather than fought, the conservative trend. Given that much of what the federal government does today is related to protecting programmatic (e.g. Social Security and Medicare) and constitutional (civil rights, political rights, etc.) rights, there is a serious disconnect between government activities and presidential messages to ordinary citizens. Because presidents have largely failed to teach citizens to venerate the rights related to the "rights revolutions," we should not be surprised that so many citizens are frustrated and bewildered by what the government does.
Keywords: presidency, American political development, rights, rhetoric
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