Are we witnessing a political breakdown of democracy? Is it possible that new as well as established democracies might assume some non-democratic features? Current developments such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or the increasing popularity of far-right parties in Europe seem to undermine democracy. Data shows that, although there is no reason to call it a global crisis, some worrisome trends should be taken into consideration. Indeed, some democracies have already undergone democratic backsliding and the future of democracies seems increasingly challenged.

Democratic backsliding is nowadays visible at two levels: on the one hand the rise of intolerance and right-wing populism in established democracies develops in forms of illiberal tendencies; on the other, in newer democracies it shows the erosion of newly established democratic institutions. Moreover, it increasingly takes the form of “executive takeover”: this involves the gradual subversion of democratic institutions by an incumbent chosen through regular elections. What is worrisome about this process is that it proceeds gradually, rarely involves the threat of violence, and occurs under explicit dissent of press, foreign observers and opposition. Moreover, incumbents enjoy a genuine and important consensus and that is why, although constituents could vote them out of office, they consciously decide not to do so.

What is very characteristic about this type of democratic backsliding is its cause – a very polarised society. This term indicates a society that is not characterised by multiple cleavages, but by a predominant single-dimensioned, cross-cutting difference, which divides citizens on two opposite blocs. In this type of society people increasingly perceive politics in terms of “us” versus “them”.

This is happening all over the world – some examples are the US with Donald Trump, Hungary with Orban, Turkey with Erdogan, and Brazil with Bolsonaro.

What is most interesting is to see that the people play an active role in this process. Conventional wisdom assumes that citizens in democracies do value democracy. However, although citizens might value democracy in theory, in polarised societies they decide to vote for a less democratic candidate if he/she is aligned with their ideological positions. This occurs because in polarised societies voters have a strong preference for a candidate or a party and, therefore, prefer voting that undemocratic candidate/party, instead of choosing a democratic challenger. Then, the incumbents regularly elected by the constituents manipulate the democratic process in their favour and subvert democracy. However, instead of voting them out of office, citizens accept the undemocratic reforms and re-elect the incumbents because they defend a particular issue that the voters value.

A study of the US case examines whether support for democracy is strong enough to prevent undemocratic behaviour by incumbents. This study finds that political polarisation poses different threats for democratic stability. In the US, citizens value democracy only to a certain extent and are partisans first and democrats only second. This means that voters would hardly punish the undemocratic behaviour of their party’s candidate by voting against it. Therefore, American commitment to democracy will not safeguard the country from democratic backsliding. Only presidential unpopularity could slow down their erosion of democracy.

Since democratic erosion comes from the bottom, in the sense that is supported by citizens and is carried out by the elites through democratic means, this trend raises a lot of concern. What will happen if the citizens continue accepting the undemocratic behaviour of their incumbents?  How can right and left-wing populism be stopped if incumbents are legitimised by their voters? Will a democratic breakdown occur in reality?

Photo in header by Parker Johnson on Unsplash