Meet 2021 Carnegie Fellow Susan Stokes, University of Chicago

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program recognizes an exceptional group of both established and emerging scholars, journalists, and authors with the goal of strengthening U.S. democracy, driving technological and cultural creativity, exploring global connections and global ruptures, and improving both natural and human environments. 

How will the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program impact your research and overall career?

The Carnegie fellowship will give me time to write a book that I would not otherwise have been able to write. It will be about would-be autocrats, leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the US, who win democratic elections and then undermine democracy. The excellent recent scholarship has focused on their attacks on democratic institutions. I’m interested in their attacks on what I’m calling democratic culture. For instance, they want voters to believe that all actors in the public sphere are scoundrels, the implicit message being, “I may be bad but everyone else is just as bad.” This can help give them space to encroach on democracy without eliciting a backlash among voters.

What research topics do you primarily focus on? How can people access your work?

At the Chicago Center on Democracy we currently have three lines of research. One poses the question, If voters listen to the campaign rhetoric of would-be autocrats, does it contain early warnings of their lack of commitment to democracy? We are using text-as-data techniques to analyze campaign speeches of a number of politicians around the world. A second line of research is an effort to improve the democracy indexes that many researchers and journalists use. A third asks the question, Can mechanisms of direct democracy, such as referendums and citizens’ initiatives, improve the legitimacy of representative democracy? Regarding access, the website of the Chicago Center on Democracy has updates. We are also developing an online tool that will give users access to data collected in all three of these projects.

Do you have any advice for students in political science, including tips on how to find funding and support for research projects?

We ask our graduate students to spend all of their time reading professional journal articles and social-science books, and then wonder that their writing often sounds narrow and stilted! I advise reading broadly, including novels and general-interest non-fiction. It’s a way to keep your prose fresh and to be able to pose research questions that a broad audience will immediately see as important. Your grant proposals will often be read by people outside of your area of research, sometimes by non-social scientists, so being able to communicate clearly and forcefully to a broader audience is a key to success.

Susan Stokes is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. She is a founding member of Bright Line Watch, an organization that tracks threats to democracy in the United States. Previously, she taught at Yale, where she served as chair of the Department of Political Science and of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies.