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Looking at US presidential speeches throughout history

Thanks to text analysis software, researchers are able to dissect the State of the Union address delivered every year by the President of the United States for the past two centuries and more. The analysis reveals how political thought has evolved over the course of history.

American flag and microphone. © INRA, Guillaume Bourrioux
By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 11/09/2016
Published on 11/03/2016

Will the freshly-minted President of the United States, elected on 8 November 2016, be able to surprise Congress and the American people during his “State of the Union” address? Until now, few have been able to do so, the obligatory exercise being set in stone in terms of the goals of governance and topics addressed: the economy, productivity, domestic and foreign policy, security, etc. (1)

For 200 years and more, presidential speeches bear a striking resemblance

This is one of the findings of research (2), which consisted of analysing the content of 228 speeches from 1790 to 2014 with text analysis software (3). At first glance, the speeches of 45 consecutive presidents seem interchangeable, even between presidents from different parties. A few rare attempts to stray from the beaten path have been made. For example, in 1887 Grover Cleveland devoted his entire speech to fiscal reform, the centrepiece of his campaign. But his efforts were in vain, and Cleveland lost the election to William Harrison the following year.

“Text analysis is not about what individual presidents are like, or even about comparing them”, explains Jean-Philippe Cointet. “It casts a wider net, and attempts to draw out the major themes addressed over two centuries of American democracy. It tries to home in on any divergences depending on the ups and downs of history”.

Identifying key themes and how they are related

A river network captures the flow across history of US political discourse, as perceived by contemporaries. Time moves along the x axis. Clusters on semantic networks of 300 most frequent terms for each of 10 historical periods are displayed as vertical bars. Relations between clusters of adjacent periods are indexed by gray flows, whose density reflects their degree of connection. Streams that connect at any point in history may be considered to be part of the same system, indicated with a single color.. © INRA, Jean-Philippe Cointet
A river network captures the flow across history of US political discourse, as perceived by contemporaries. Time moves along the x axis. Clusters on semantic networks of 300 most frequent terms for each of 10 historical periods are displayed as vertical bars. Relations between clusters of adjacent periods are indexed by gray flows, whose density reflects their degree of connection. Streams that connect at any point in history may be considered to be part of the same system, indicated with a single color. © INRA, Jean-Philippe Cointet

Taking a closer look, some themes appear and others disappear over the course of the 225 years studied: “land and limits” (territories, Indians, in red) disappeared around 1820; “law and constitution” (constitutional reform and rights for African-Americans, in dark blue) popped up from time to time between 1850 and 1870; and “schools and help” (social policy, in yellow) appeared late in the 1990s.

But first and foremost, it is the connections between themes that shed the most light on how topics are broached and thought about. For example, in the 1950s there is a telling correlation between the theme of “wages and production” and “ expenditures and dollars” (in light green).

 WWI: a major shift in US policy

One of the major findings of this study was that the year 1917, when the United States entered WWI, marked a turning point in US foreign policy. Before 1917, US foreign policy consisted mainly of bilateral agreements between countries (“treaty and conventions”, in purple). After 1917, US foreign policy became more comprehensive with President Wilson, and the US started to increasingly position itself as a heavyweight on the world stage (“freedom and nations”, “world and nations”, etc.). With the onset of the Cold War in the 1950s, a second shift led to a two-pronged US foreign policy approach, with the US role as international superpower on the one hand (“peace and allies”), and issues of domestic security on the other (“hope and freedom”).

1917 seems to be a milestone in other ways, too. Not only did it mark a shift in US foreign policy, but it saw the emergence of increasingly progressive ideas (freedom, peace, courage), forging a “modern” notion of politics. This observation differs from some historical analyses, which have identified other events as pivotal in the evolution of the American political conscience: the Civil War (1861-1865), a period of reconstruction (1865-1877), the New Deal (1933-1938), and WWII.

“This type of mathematical and quantitative analysis, based on infallible data, sheds a different and complementary light on things. Historians tend to favour a certain form of history, like the history of civil rights or economics, etc. This tool can raise new questions and force us to re-think established ideas”, concludes Jean-Philippe Cointet.

The age of culturomics

In this study, the software CorTexT Manager analysed nearly two million words over a period of 200 years, taking into account any changes in the meanings of words over time, and pointing out those changes that are particularly significant. That allowed the researchers to carry out a study over a sufficiently long period.

This type of analysis is part of a current trend, that of “digital humanities”, which mines digital data in the social sciences. The Google Ngram Viewer takes things to another level, charting word frequency in millions of books in Google’s digital library. An article that appeared in Science in 2010 (4) revealed certain socio-cultural trends over time and in different countries. We have entered the age of “Culturomics”!
 

(1) Since 1790, the State of the Union address is an annual obligatory exercise carried out by the President of the United States. Lasting about one hour in its current form, and generally made early in the year, it provides an evaluation of actions taken and outlines the programme for the months to come. The address is made on Capitol Hill in Washington before Congress (House of Representatives + Senate). The State of the Union address has been broadcast on the radio since 1911 and television since 1946.
(2) Collaboration between Jean-Philippe Cointet (INRA, Joint Research Unit LISIS) and researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE), Columbia University, New York.
(3) The online software CorTexT Manager was developed by INRA in its Joint Research Unit LISIS within the framework of a platform supported by the Scientific Interest Group IFRIS and with the support of LabEx SITES.
(4) Jean-Baptiste Michel et al. 2010. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science 14 Jan 2011 Vol 331, Issue 6014, pp 176-182 DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment., Science for Action and Development
Associated Centre(s):
Versailles-Grignon

Reference

Alix Rule, Jean-Philippe Cointet, and  Peter S. Bearman. 2015. Lexical shifts, substantive changes, and continuity in State of the Union discourse, 1790–2014. PNAS vol. 112-35, 10837–10844. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1512221112.

A new oncology study programme

Jean-Philippe Cointet is participating in a new textual analysis programme on processes of structuration and innovation in oncology. In collaboration with the University of Chicago and McGill University in Canada, the project uses a qualitative-quantitative approach to investigate the socio-technical dynamics that guide and synchronise oncologists around the world.

A new version of CorText

The software CorTexT Manager, created in 2011, is the flagship application of the CorTexT platform directed by Marc Barbier (Joint Research Unit LISIS). Currently, it is used by some 2 000 people around the world, and offers an accessible interface to researchers in social sciences who are not necessarily tech-savvy. CorText Manager offers great flexibility in data resources - scientific publications, press articles, speeches or even Tweets - as well as in the type of research. A new version of the interface has just been launched: http://managerv2.cortext.net