"Making sure that the other side does not get to govern may become more important than playing fair"

Interview with Milan Svolik about polarization.

In several countries around the world, democratic backsliding is observable. But how is this possible? And how does polarization influence democratic participation in society? Milan Svolik, Yale-professor, in an interview.

In quite a few countries around the world, we have seen what is often called “democratic backsliding”, where democratically elected leaders or governments dismantle democratic standards and restrict the rule of law. How is this possible?

Milan Svolik: Answering that question, in my opinion, is one of the most important intellectual challenges social science is facing today. When we were concerned about the survival of democracies in the past, it was primarily because unelected actors -- most often militaries – were interfering in politics. This is how Augusto Pinochet brought down Chilean democracy in 1973 and how, more recently, militaries ousted the democratically elected governments of Egypt (2013) and Myanmar (February 2021).

But after the end of the Cold War, we see a proliferation of a very different threat to democracy that you referred to as democratic backsliding. Since the 2000s, democratic backsliding accounts for four out of every five democratic breakdowns.

This process has two notable features. First, as the label suggests, democratic backsliding tends to proceed gradually, typically over several election cycles, under the pretence of a constitutional process – rather than sudden and violent as in the case of military coups. It is therefore a more insidious threat to democracy. Second, and crucially, it is initiated by democratically elected parties and politicians – it starts from a democratic status quo. Which raises what I see as the central puzzle of democratic backsliding: When and why do voters let politicians get away with undermining democracy?

When a gradual executive takeover happens, does the electorate punish the government by voting for someone else in the subsequent election?

Svolik: Your question speaks to a key difference between dictatorship and democracy: In democracies, elections represent an instrument of democratic self-defence. Elections give voters the power to stop politicians who undermine democracy by defeating them at the polls – before it is too late.

But whether voters are punishing politicians because they act undemocratically is a question about cause and effect and separating the consequences of a politician’s undemocratic actions from other potential reasons why a voter may vote against him is challenging. Consider the 2020 US presidential election. One way to interpret Trump’s defeat is that Americans punished him for the many violations of democratic norms during his term as president. But there are many alternative explanations: that voters were punishing Trump for his handling of the COVID pandemic, its economic consequences, or that the change between 2016 and 2020 had to do more with Biden than Trump – Biden being male (unlike Hillary Clinton) and a moderate policy-wise (unlike Trump.)

To address this inferential problem, I have been conducting along with several collaborators the following type of experiment in several countries, including Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, Northern Ireland, and the United States. In each country, we asked a representative sample of voters to choose between two hypothetical candidates. Each candidate was described by a combination of attributes, including policy platforms, party labels, and demographic characteristics. Crucially, some candidates were also described as supporting a measure that would violate a key democratic principle. And because such undemocratic measures were assigned to candidates at random, we were able to isolate the effect of a candidate’s attempt to subvert democracy on his electoral prospects. That is, we can compare the share of votes received by undemocratic candidates to that of democratic but otherwise identical candidates. A decline in an undemocratic candidate’s vote share is in effect a metric for the punishment that voters are willing to dispense in defence of democracy.

We found that voters do punish candidates who endorse positions that violate democratic principles, but that punishment is tenuous. Across contexts, the magnitude of this punishment decreases when policy or partisan differences between candidates are large or when the electorate is sharply divided. In other words, voters are reluctant to punish politicians for disregarding democratic principles when doing so requires abandoning one’s favoured party or policies. Voters are often willing to give their own side a pass.

Do you think that a similar mechanism is at work in European countries even though the political systems are a bit different?

Svolik: This is a question that can only be addressed with more empirical work. But I do have some intuitions concerning what differences in political systems might matter. There are two major, relevant differences between the United States and most European countries:  one, most elections in Europe are not winner-takes-all affairs – because only a few European countries have a presidential system -- and two, that European countries have more than two major parties – a consequence of proportional representation.

This is good news for democracy in Europe. The first difference lowers the stakes of elections; the second difference means that especially moderate voters have a range of alternatives to choose from if their favoured politician or party acts undemocratically. They do not become ideological hostages of a single party.

But I do not think there is a systematic difference between Europe and the rest of the world in one key political factor: human nature. Specifically, voters’ willingness to trade off democratic principles for their favourite party or policies. We see a consequence of this in several European countries, most prominently Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.

A recent poll in Germany has found that the political split is troubling people more than for example immigration or economic development. Do you think people are conscious of the effects of polarization?

Svolik: The most pernicious consequence of polarization is in my view the following: An increase in polarization raises the stakes of elections and in turn the price that voters have to pay to prioritize democratic principles over partisan interests. Put differently, in polarized societies, making sure that the other side does not get to govern may become more important than playing fair. And this can take on a particularly vicious form: the supporters of one side start justifying their own undemocratic actions by insisting that they are only doing so because the other side has already shown a willingness to undermine democracy. According to this logic, awareness of polarization – if polarization is indeed high -- may make things worse because it convinces each side that the other is unlikely to put democratic principles above partisan interests. By the same argument, misperceptions of polarization may be similarly detrimental because they can result in more mutual distrust than warranted.


Milan Svolik is Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He has authored and co-authored articles on the politics of authoritarian regimes, democratization, and democratic backsliding. His latest book project examines why ordinary people support politicians who undermine democracy.

The questions were asked by Johanna Lutz.

This interview was originally published in the latest issue of the FES Info (in German). Access the full magazine here.