Polarisation & Democracy

Theory-building in the fields of democratisation research and the promotion of democracy assigns citizens a key role in preventing democratic backsliding. It is namely essential for the survival of democracy that citizens act as control mechanisms and react to authoritarian tendencies of elected politicians by voting them out of office. In a highly polarised environment, which has become a reality in many countries in the OSCE region, however, political developments have been mainly perceived through the parochial lenses of one’s own political leanings, and the difference between enemies and opponents is no longer respected, either. Subsequently, citizens are less inclined to act as watchdogs and are more willing to accept violations of democratic rules if only to help their side win. Deepening polarisation then offers a gateway for democratic backsliding.

In a cooperation with Professor Milan Svolik from Yale University we are testing this hypothesis by investigating the electorate in seven consolidated and defective European democracies: Estonia, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine. With our approach we go beyond the usual question of whether one finds democracy to be the best form of the government and ask from the voters to choose between democracy and various sorts of interests. The results of the cross-national survey will tell us the following:

Firstly, how polarised a society is.

Secondly, how resilient and stable a democracy is. The more citizens accept violation of democratic norms, the less resilient and stable a democracy is.

Thirdly, for which interests (identity/values-related or socio-economic) are voters willing to tolerate violations of democratic norms.

Fourthly, which elements of a democracy voters cherish the least and are most willing to give up.

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