Preaching Hate on the Air: Father Coughlin and the Great Depression

Tianyi Wang, University of Copenhagen

The continuing fragmentation of the media and the emergence of non-mainstream media such as “alternative right” news sites and political talk radio blur the line between reliable information and misinformation, which could have important implications for democratic discourse in the “marketplace of ideas”. To what extent can non-mainstream media sway political outcomes and public sentiment? Do severe economic hardship and crises increase the attractiveness of non-mainstream media as a source of information? Does initial exposure to extreme media shape political attitudes even in the long run? I study these questions in the context of the US during the Great Depression and examine the case of Father Charles E. Coughlin, arguably one of the most controversial radio pundits in American history due to his open denunciation of the Roosevelt administration and his support for Nazism, anti-Semitism and isolationism in prewar America. I construct a new data set on Coughlin’s radio network and obtain plausibly exogenous variation in the exposure to Coughlin’s broadcast based on terrain and geographic features. I then study the causal effect of Coughlin’s broadcast on a range of political outcomes, including presidential election outcomes in the 1930s, public anti-Semitic sentiments captured by the Gallup Poll, and patriotism as proxied by WWII war bond sales and wartime volunteering activities. Finally, I examine the relationship between local economic conditions and Coughlin’s influence as well as his potential impacts in the long run. This study sheds light on how the exploitation of alternative media by individuals may sway political outcomes and public opinions.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 43. Religion, Nationalism, and Populism