Strategy & Democracy Project

Overview and Context

Dr. Stephanie Mudge, Principal Investigator
After a half-century of deregulatory and market-centered politics, markets and democracy now appear to be on separate, divergent tracks. In theory markets should respond badly to political volatility, yet stock markets have thus far proven strangely insensitive to the yawning inequalities, environmental disruptions, vitriolic politics, and ethno-nationalist resentments that threaten the survival of democratic institutions. Meanwhile parties, campaigns and elections are ever more dominated by money- and technology-driven mobilization techniques that tend to amplify partisan outrage and feed off of conspiratorial political tendencies. The Strategy & Democracy Project, headed by Dr. Stephanie Mudge, seeks to historicize and account for this state of affairs. Why, after almost a century of democratic political development—giving rise, by the year 2000, to what many characterized as an age of triumphant democratic capitalism—are democratic institutions failing while markets thrive? How might we have foreseen the coming of the current democratic crisis? The DataLab will support this project using computational text analysis of American newspapers over time, focusing on structural topic models and word embedding comparisons over time.

More specifically, the Strategy & Democracy project will investigate the Polanyian proposition that political-economic development is marked by periodic crises in which untethered markets and representative democracy enter into a zero-sum relationship. Building on past research (Mudge 2018), it will investigate the hypothesis that such periods have a distinctive warning sign: a strategic turn in political life. In other words, the more mainstream politicians and parties shift toward serving the interests of markets and economic elites, the less responsive parties and politicians are to the interests, needs and demands of represented communities—especially of the less powerful sort. As a result, politicians increasingly rely on strategic techniques, expertise, and experts to ‘spin’ otherwise unpopular political messages. The political strategist or “spin doctor”, in short, is a harbinger of democracy in decline and the coming of a new moment of crisis.

Research Approach

In order to evaluate these propositions, the DataLab will help map the historical trajectory, prominence, and moral valence of strategy and strategists in American political life using computational text analysis. The project centers on two periods: 1860-1930, and 1960 to the present. DataLab will create a collection of texts, or corpus, of contemporary news from these time periods. Using this corpus the DataLab will work with Dr. Mudge and her research assistants Max Montrose and Lindsay Maurer to generate temporal topic and word embedding models to follow the prevalence and direction of political strategy and strategists during moments of political-economic crisis.

Topic models generate scores for each piece of text in a corpus which indicate how important the model thinks a topic is within a single text in comparison to others in the corpus. The topic models in this project will be used to measure the salience of political strategy topics and political strategists over time, as well as organizations, people, and places that are particularly central to these topics.

To track the moral valence of strategy and strategists over time, the project will also make use of word embeddings. Word embeddings are numerical representations of a word, generated by examining each word in the context of all other words in a corpus. This comparison allows words to be “mapped” as a point in a cloud with other words, with words clustered together in this cloud having similar meaning, and how those meanings change over time. The word embeddings model for this project will examine how terminologies related to political strategy changed over time, and their moral connotations. We will also follow the relationship between strategy, market, and democratic terms.

Potential Impact

The Strategy & Democracy Project will provide a clearer historical understanding of how we arrived at the political present and a new way of tracking the health of democratic political orders. Given the political anxieties and future uncertainties that characterize the current moment and foreseeable future—especially as mid-term elections and the 2024 presidential election approach—the Strategy & Democracy Project may attract significant interest from the general public.