Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Gronbeck, Bruce

Second Advisor

Hingstman, David

First Committee Member

Hayes, Joy

Second Committee Member

Poulakos, Takis

Third Committee Member

Havens, Tim


This project examines the impact of environmentalism as it operates in presidential rhetoric after Earth Day 1970. Specifically, I look at how environmentalism is constructed and then utilized in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, and William Jefferson Clinton. I argue that U.S. presidents use the rhetoric of environmentalism as a rhetorical tool to define their ideal citizen, interpret complex rhetorical situations for the American people, and introduce policies. Environmental vocabularies, I argue, are crucial to understanding presidential communication, as they enable presidents to move policy discussions away from technical discourse and frame ideas using accessible and familiar terms. This project, in many ways, highlights the discursive identity of the American people and the role of structuring vocabularies in presidential power. In each post-Earth Day administration, the citizenry is invited to participate in a version of environmentalism that also reflects the chief executive's political vision for the country.

Through a Burkean cluster and agon analysis, each of the three case studies reveals the unique way each presidency defines environmentalism and the strategic function of each definition. Chapter 3 uses a cluster-agon analysis to demonstrate how environmental rhetoric helps Ronald Reagan construct his economic policy. Chapter 4 argues that H.W. Bush's unique definition of environmentalism functions as a strategic communication tool that helps shape his domestic and international policies. It was also an important step in breaking down binaries between economic development and environmentalism that had shaped present-day understandings of environmentalism. A cluster-agon analysis reveals that although he was considered to be a failed environmental president, Bush's definition of environmentalism laid the groundwork for future, more successful environmental presidencies. As the last case study in this project, Chapter 6 looks at environmentalism within President Clinton's presidency, arguing that his definition of environmentalism operationalizes a unique cluster of terms that allows him to advocate for social justice issues and circumvent a lame-duck Congress.

By understanding the environment as a set of values and not a tangible object, these case studies unpack the wide variety of cultural work that its language is able to do. This research on a macro level is an analysis of political communication strategy, understanding what words work and what words don't. Unlike many rhetorical projects, however, this project uses environmentalism as a lens through which the possibilities and limits of presidential power can be explored.


cultural studies, environmental rhetoric, presidential rhetoric


v, 193 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 187-193).


Copyright 2012 Karla Ann Stevenson

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Communication Commons