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The Democracy I Like. The Effect of Dissatisfaction with and Conceptions of Democracy on Citizens' Tolerance for Democratic Backsliding

Democracy
Public Opinion
Survey Experiments
Lea Kaftan
University of Cologne
Theresa Gessler
University of Zurich
Lea Kaftan
University of Cologne

Abstract

Political scientists are confronted with a puzzle: While research shows wide support for democracy among citizens in democracies, citizens also often acquiesce to democratic backsliding by incumbent governments they support. We address this puzzle by investigating the role of citizens' conceptions of and satisfaction with how democracy works in their countries. Refining previous research questions, we ask whether conceptions of and satisfaction with democracy can explain citizens' willingness to tolerate democratic backsliding. For this purpose, we focus on three distinct conceptions of democracy: electoral democracy, liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy. Electoral democracy guarantees freedom and equal voting rights. Liberal democracy is an electoral democracy that additionally guarantees the rule of law, the protection of minority rights and effective checks and balances. Majoritarian democracy is an electoral democracy that additionally guarantees that strong governments implement the will of the majority. Defined as such, majoritarian and liberal democracy contradict each other but mirror important differences across citizens’ conceptions of what democracy should look like. We pre-registered several hypotheses about the relationship between citizens’ conceptions of democracy and their willingness to oppose democratic backsliding. In general, we assumed that citizens are more likely to oppose democratic backsliding by their preferred governments if it affects aspects of democracy they deem to be important. We furthermore assumed that satisfaction with how democracy works in citizens’ countries moderates in how far citizens’ conceptions of democracy affect their willingness to oppose democratic backsliding by their preferred governments. Citizens with low levels of satisfaction with how democracy works in their countries were expected to be more likely to tolerate democratic backsliding even if the backsliding affects aspects of their conception of democracy. We conducted a survey experiment with 700 respondents from Germany and Poland, each. During the experiment, respondents rated several vignettes in which their preferred government restricts different democratic rights. Respondents were asked how likely it is that they would protest in public against the proposal, that they would defend the proposal in discussions with acquaintances or that they would vote again for their preferred government. The preliminary analysis confirms that citizens are more likely to oppose democratic backsliding that restricts elements of democracy they deem to be important. In addition, differences in conceptions of democracy have a stronger effect on the likelihood that respondents do not tolerate democratic backsliding by their preferred government for satisfied respondents than for dissatisfied respondents. Surprisingly, citizens who are satisfied with how democracy works were on average more likely to vote for the government, more likely to defend the democratic backsliding and less likely to protest against the government, all else equal. This article makes valuable contributions to the literature on democratic backsliding and democratic support. Most importantly, it shows that citizens differ with regard to their perception of what democratic backsliding is. The article furthermore highlights that satisfaction with how democracy works is not necessarily a good indicator for citizens’ willingness to defend the democratic system in place.