Politics and International Relations
One puzzling feature of political rhetoric in authoritarian systems is that it commonly invokes democratic ideas and objectives as sources of political legitimacy or national goals. The questions investigated here are why authoritarians use democratic rhetoric and what picture of democracy is projected into the realm of public discourse. This study takes the 2014 coup in Thailand as a case to study the meaning of “democracy” in authoritarian rhetoric. Using content analysis of the Thai prime minister’s public platform, “Returning Happiness to the People,” the dissertation shows how elite rhetoric in Thailand takes advantage of the natural elasticity in the term democracy. By understanding democracy as a two-dimensional concept constituted by the values of participation and power, the dissertation presents a graphical space in which different conceptions of democracy can be plotted. The liberal, social democratic, or participatory subtypes of democracy, for example, can all be identified by the nature of the trade-offs they make between participation and power. Contrary to popular criticism, Thai elite rhetoric in the post-coup environment was neither ideologically incoherent nor sycophantic. Though not completely ideologically consistent, the evidence suggests that an alternative model of democracy is being put forth. Put in context with recent political developments in other authoritarian systems such as Myanmar and China, these results should prompt scholars of democratic transition and practitioners of democracy promotion to reconsider contemporary models and methods.