Media, Pulpit, and Populist Persuasion: Evidence from Father Coughlin

53 Pages Posted: 19 May 2020

See all articles by Tianyi Wang

Tianyi Wang

University of Pittsburgh - Department of Economics

Date Written: April 22, 2020


New technologies make it easier for charismatic individuals to influence others. This paper studies the political impact of the first populist radio personality in American history. Father Charles Coughlin blended populist demagoguery, anti-Semitism, and fascist sympathies to create a hugely popular radio program that attracted tens of millions of listeners throughout the 1930s. I evaluate the short- and long-term impacts of exposure to Father Coughlin's radio program. Exploiting variation in the radio signal strength as a result of topographic factors, I find that a one standard deviation increase in exposure to Coughlin's anti-FDR broadcast reduced FDR's vote share by about two percentage points in the 1936 presidential election. Effects were larger in counties with more Catholics and persisted after Father Coughlin left the air. An alternative difference-in-differences strategy exploiting Coughlin's switch in attitude towards FDR during 1932-1936 confirms the results. Moreover, I find that places more exposed to Coughlin’s broadcast in the late 1930s were more likely to form a local branch of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, sell fewer war bonds during WWII, and harbor more negative feelings towards Jews in the long run.

Keywords: Mass Media, Charismatic Leader, Religion, Anti-Semitism, Populism, Great Depression

JEL Classification: D72, N42, Z12

Suggested Citation

Wang, Tianyi, Media, Pulpit, and Populist Persuasion: Evidence from Father Coughlin (April 22, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Tianyi Wang (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - Department of Economics ( email )

4901 Wesley Posvar Hall
230 South Bouquet Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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