Education populism? A corpus-driven analysis of Betsy DeVos’s education policy discourse

Michael Ian Cohen


Scholars of political economy have raised the question of whether recent populist movements around the world signal the decline of neoliberal hegemony. What would such a decline mean for education policy, an arena that has been dominated by a neoliberal common sense for several decades? This study investigates the policy discourse of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, in order to assess the extent to which it aligns with the neoliberal common sense or draws upon discourses of populism that have been gaining traction in the last few years. Using methods of corpus linguistics, I engage in a critical discourse analysis of 59 of DeVos’s public speeches delivered between 2017 and 2019 in comparison with a reference corpus of speeches delivered by DeVos’s predecessors in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The findings, informed by Ernesto Laclau’s theory of populism as political logic and discourse, suggest that DeVos deploys several features of populist discourse even as she advocates policies that are characteristically neoliberal. I consider the implications of this discourse for education policy in the US.


education policy; populism; neoliberal reform; privatization; policy discourse; corpus-driven critical discourse analysis

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Copyright (c) 2021 Michael Ian Cohen

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