Media, Pulpit, and Populist Persuasion: Evidence from Father Coughlin
53 Pages Posted: 19 May 2020
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: Suggested Citation