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The Idea of Progress in Political Speech Open Access

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By conducting a content analysis of inaugural addresses given by the last twenty Presidents of the United States, this study will examine the appearance of the word progress in American political rhetoric over the course of the twentieth century and determine the existence of any thematic patterns of its usage. I have categorized the appearances of the word progress into four contextual categories - economic, political, social, and moral - and have also coded the appearances of the word in terms of whether it was used to refer to progress on a national or on a global level. The results of this analysis indicate that the idea of progress is invoked quite frequently by U.S. Presidents in their inaugural speeches, although by some Presidents more than others. Specifically, U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan tended to use the word quite often, while presidents Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter did not use it at all in their inaugural addresses. In addition, there are clearly more appearances of the idea of progress in the speeches of Republican presidents than Democrats. Also, the context in which the word progress has been used by presidents overwhelmingly tends to be political or economic in nature, rather than moral or social. Analyzing the idea of progress as it appears in presidential speeches will hopefully serve to partially dismantle and deconstruct its almost mythical power to give an ideological justification to even the some of the darkest facets of human existence, such as global inequality, domination, war, and torture. It will be argued that the cultural notion of progress as positive social change is largely, if not entirely, relative to the social and temporal location in which it emerges, despite its frequent portrayal by U.S. presidents as an objective and agreed-upon fact of human existence.

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