Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

Andrew King


During the past twenty years, scholars have posited the emergence of a legitimacy crisis in the American political system. Symptoms of the crisis were low voter turn out and a culture of withdrawal, cynicism, alienation, and a widespread perception of institutional incompetence and indifference. At the very least, the widespread mood of apathy and decline have been seized upon by various candidates seeking political office, in particular the presidency, who routinely engage in discourse targeting legitimacy restoration. This discourse echoed the general theme of the Jeffersonian Myth. This myth, which predates Jefferson in its old Roman roots, targets the citizen as the primary source of political power and moral authority. Working from Habermas' writings regarding legitimacy crises and his ideal speech situation, this study developed three legitimacy topoi which were used as a critical method for understanding candidate discourse. These topoi were used to explore the discourse of the 1992 televised presidential debates. The debates were selected because of their economy of statements and voter impact, and because legitimacy had become a central theme of the 1992 elections. The study found that the third party candidate indicted the legitimacy of the system and argued for restoration far more than the other two candidates. The incumbent used legitimacy appeals the least. The exhaling Democratic challenger affirmed and vilified the legitimacy of the government showing that rhetorical strategy and logic do not always coincide.