Research Seminar: The Battle for the Soul of America: The Role of National Identity in Presidential Campaign Communication

This paper provides an in-depth, comparative analysis of the role of national identity in American presidential campaign communication.

It examines the extent to which the 2020 campaigns of Joe Biden and Donald Trump reflected a longstanding struggle over the meaning of American national identity – between a civic nationalist tradition emphasizing liberal-democratic myths and symbols, and an ethnic nationalist tradition emphasizing white American myths and symbols.

To do so, the paper develops a novel analytical framework to explore the nationalist content of campaign communication, applying it through a content analysis of all tweets sent by Trump and Biden during the campaign (n=4321). This analysis shows that Biden relied more on the civic tradition of American national identity, while Trump hewed closer to the ethnic tradition.

The primary takeaway, though, is that national identity was central to both candidates’ communication. Indeed, Biden relied upon nationalist myths more often than Trump. This suggests that presidential campaigns address more than leading policy issues of the day – they are also mechanisms for addressing longer term symbolic struggles over the meaning of national identity. 

Dr Eric Taylor Woods is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Plymouth. His research examines the intersections of politics, culture, and media - with a particular focus on how these phenomena relate to nationalism. His most recent book (co-authored with Dr Robert Schertzer of Uni of Toronto) is entitled, The New Nationalism in America and Beyond: The Deep Roots of Ethnic Nationalism in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Eric has also researched the cultural politics of Britain's imperial past, and he has published extensively on Christian-Indigenous relations in Canada, including the 2016 book, 'The Long Road to Apology: A Cultural Sociology of Anglican Mission and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada' (Palgrave, 2016). In addition to his role at Plymouth University, Eric is a Faculty Fellow in the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, and he is a board member of several leading journals and research associations in his fields of study. Eric was awarded his PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.