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Resisting Democratic Backsliding. Public Debate and Citizens' Opposition to Democratic Backsliding

Democracy
Methods
Experimental Design
Theresa Gessler
University of Zurich
Theresa Gessler
University of Zurich
Lea Kaftan
University of Cologne

Abstract

Recent literature has highlighted a particular challenge to the stability of democracy: Although citizens in democracies rarely decide to vote ‘against democracy’, the literature has argued that they often acquiesce to undemocratic changes, due to long-established loyalties (Bermeo, 2003), their satisfaction with the government and its policies (Singer, 2018) or partisan and identity-based double standards (Graham and Svolik, 2020; Zilis, 2020; Svolik, 2020). A focal question in this regard is how other actors and the public debate about such proposals can move citizens and particularly government supporters to oppose democratic backsliding by incumbent governments. Building on insights about the role of partisanship in acquiescence, we focus our study on government supporters. Specifically, we ask how the framing of debates on democratic backsliding by the government and those actors who oppose the government's infringement on democracy shapes responses to backsliding among government supporters. Our analysis focuses on four factors that we expect to affect the likelihood that government supporters oppose democratic backsliding: The reasons governments provide for infringements on democracy (e.g. external threats versus mere efficiency concerns), whether and what kind of criticism opponents voice, as well as the identity of those opponents (whether they are trusted by citizens). We test our expectations, building on a pre-registered vignette experiment conducted with 700 nationally representative respondents each from Germany and Poland. We present respondents with three proposals, embedded in a vignette that describes the public debate surrounding the proposal. Going beyond previous studies, we analyze several outcome measures, such as defending an undemocratic proposal to acquaintances, re-electing the government and actively protesting against the proposal. Preliminary results show that the justification of the proposal by the government has a stronger effect than the framing of criticism of the proposal by its opponents. While the actors who criticize a proposal do make a difference, this is mediated by individuals' trust in actors. Finally, our analyses also highlight the importance of differentiating between different outcome measures: While government supporters voice hesitation for re-electing the government or defending its proposal in a discussion, they are rarely moved to protest against the proposal. Overall, our work has implications for research on citizens' attitudes towards democracy and the stability of democratic regimes. It contributes to an emerging strand of literature on political behavior in the context of democratic backsliding by integrating concepts such as trust and and framing into the field. Additionally, we believe our study can give practical recommendations on how to speak about democratic backsliding in public debates.