Sticky words? Towards a theory of rhetorical path dependency

16 Feb 2018

Speech matters. Political actors are defined by what they say as much as by what they do but, with each rhetorical choice, they also narrow the range of rhetorical options open to them for the future. This paper examines the idea of path dependency, a well-established concept in the field of policy studies, and applies it to the study of political rhetoric. It argues that words are sticky, leaving political leaders caught between the desire to utilise fresh and engaging rhetoric to explain new policy choices and the reality that they cannot shake off the wording of their previous promises. In advancing a theory of rhetorical path dependency, the paper builds on the insights of both discursive institutionalism and rhetorical political analysis to suggest that whilst ideas are indeed vital to the shaping of institutions, the arguments that give those ideas shape can themselves be constrained by earlier choices.