Polarization & Autocratization

Identity, Partisanship, Polarization – How democratically elected politicians get away with autocratizing their country

Theory-building in the fields of democratisation research and the promotion of democracy assigns citizens a key role in preventing democratic backsliding: By reacting to authoritarian tendencies of elected politicians and voting them out of office, citizens perform a controlling function that is essential for the survival of democracy.

In highly polarized environments, however, citizens are less inclined to take on the role of a watchdog and more willing to accept violations of democratic rules to help their side win. Deepening polarization then offers a gateway for democratic backsliding.

In cooperation with Professor Milan Svolik from Yale University, we tested this hypothesis in a cross-national survey in seven European democracies (Estonia, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine) to find answers to the following questions:

  1. How polarized are the societies of Estonia, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine?
  2. How resilient and stable are these democracies? The more citizens accept violations of democratic norms, the less resilient and stable a democracy is.
  3. For which interests (identity policies or socio-economic interests) are voters willing to tolerate violations of democratic norms?
  4. Which democratic violations (of which democratic tenet) are voters most willing to tolerate?

Key Findings of the Comparative Study

Voters understand democracy

Voters are not indifferent to violations of democratic norms

Voters are partisan

Voters engage in identity-democracy trade-offs

Identity-democracy trade-offs are heightened by polarization

Same-sex couples’ rights is the most polarized issue

The far right is a danger to democracy

Left-leaning voters play an ambivalent role

Polarization is a driver for autocratization – but not the only one

Identity issues could become gateways for democratic erosion in Western Europe

Voters’ tendency to punish undemocratic politicians correlates with higher levels of education and a greater understanding of democracy

Conclusions & Recommendations

Voters do not value all elements of liberal democracy equally.

Identity policies facilitate democratic backsliding.

Partisanship implies responsibility.

Polarization is not the sole menace to democracy.

Western Europe is not immune to identity-driven democratic backsliding.

Autocratization does not necessarily require polarization.

Voters on the right and the left play a different role when it comes to the erosion of democracy.

Publication & Downloads



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Graphics and Logo

Graphics and Logo

Download all graphics of the study (c Florian Müller) and our FES Logo. More



Goethe Institut Barcelona • Elena Avramovska



FES Brussels • Elena Avramovska



Social Europe • Ludwig List, Johanna Lutz & Filip Milačić


Die Länderstudie zu Deutschland