Research Seminar | The Demand Side of Democratic Backsliding: Evidence from Two Conjoint Experiments
In contexts of democratic backsliding, citizens represent the last bulwark against the systematic dismantling of checks and balances by overbearing executives. So why do citizens in democracies fail to punish political candidates who openly violate democratic standards at the ballot box? The bulk of existing studies has pointed to partisan dynamics and societal polarisation to explain citizen tolerance of democratic backsliding. Drawing on recent experimental evidence from Poland and Hungary, two model cases of democratic backsliding in Europe, this presentation investigates a different set of explanations.
A first study in Poland examines the role of heterogeneous democratic attitudes as a factor shaping political behaviour in contexts of democratic backsliding. The bulk of existing research assumes that a common understanding of democracy underpins citizens’ evaluations of different candidates, resulting in a trade-off between undemocratic practices and partisan or economic considerations. I shed doubt on this assumption by showing that divergent understandings of democracy coexist among citizens and affect vote choice. Leveraging a novel approach to estimate individual-level citizen commitment to democracy by means of a candidate choice conjoint experiment, I show that respondents with less clear-cut liberal democratic attitudes not only tolerate democratic violations more readily, but do so irrespective of a given candidate’s partisan affiliation. A lack of attitudinal consolidation around liberal democratic norms thus appears to explain continued voter support for authoritarian-leaning leaders.
A second study challenges the tendency to identify individual explanatory factors to account for citizens’ toleration of democratic backsliding. Focusing on Hungary, it probes the presence of a composite effect consisting of a mosaic pattern of support for authoritarian leaders, with distinct motivations driving different groups of voters. The findings indicate that while punishment of non-democratic positions is universal, economically weak voters may be willing to overlook backsliding in the presence of economic buy-outs, and religious respondents may prefer culturally conservative leaders irrespective of their democratic views. The presentation feeds into broader debates on the role and limitations of citizens when it comes to countering trends of democratic backsliding.
Natasha Wunsch is Assistant Professor in Political Science/European Integration at Sciences Po, Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE) and a Senior Researcher with the Center for Comparative and International Studies at ETH Zurich. She is also a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). Prior to joining the CEE, Natasha was an ETH Postdoctoral Fellow with the European Politics Group at ETH Zurich (2017-2019) and an Ernst Mach Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for South-East European Studies at the University of Graz (2016-2017). She holds a PhD in Political Science from University College London.
Natasha’s research interests lie at the intersection between European Politics and Comparative Politics. She is interested in how EU integration shapes the political transformation process of aspiring member states and how, in turn, democratic backsliding and the rise of illiberal trends among member states affect cooperation at the EU level. Moreover, she directs the research project “Democratic Backsliding in Eastern Europe: Sequence, Strategies, Citizens,” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation from 2019-2023 at the Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich.
Since 2018, Natasha has been a member of the executive committee of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Standing Group on the European Union. She was elected Deputy Chair in September 2020.
*This activity has limited capacity. Registration is required to have a guaranteed seat and be able to attend the face-to-face modality. Virtual attendees will receive the access link by email.