21-22 Rudolph Field Research Fellow

Beyond ‘mere words’: Rhetorical Stratagems of Would-be Autocrats

Project Abstract

Democracies are weakened, and may even die, only rarely via coup d’états. More commonly they suffer erosion from within by democratically elected officials. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding is not limited to well-known cases like Turkey; it is also becoming increasingly visible in advanced democracies such as the United States. My research seeks explanations for how and why democracies die by focusing on political rhetoric as one important site where the dynamic process of democratic backsliding can be tracked and analyzed. Utilizing an original dataset of incumbent speeches, I explore the strategic variation in politicians’ rhetoric. Many theorists of backsliding emphasize the stealth of would-be autocrats: they hide their intentions to undermine democracy until they are safely in office. But this assumption should be scrutinized empirically. First, I use a systematic analysis of political discourse to determine at what point would-be autocrats choose to reveal their authoritarian intentions by engaging in anti-democratic appeals. I use this information to discern the degree to which democratic backsliding actually is a stealthy process. Second, by examining the timing, intensity, and patterning of anti-democratic rhetoric, my research evaluates whether words can indeed serve as early-warning signs of autocratic intent while casting light on the discursive mechanisms through which democracies backslide.



Ipek Cinar is a PhD student in the department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, studying comparative politics and quantitative methodology. Her research interests include democratic backsliding, political regime transitions and stability. Before joining the PhD program, she received an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, and a BA in Economics and Business (Double Major) from Koc University, Turkey.