Citizens as a Democratic Safeguard? The Sequence of Sanctioning Elite Attacks on Democracy

Can citizens serve as a democratic safeguard? Voters may protect democratic institutions by withdrawing electoral support from an initially supported candidate who chose to undermine democracy. This shifting behavior is costly due to cognitive dissonance: citizens would need to abandon a politician who violated democratic principles, knowing they supported her in the past. Hence, repeated elections induce additional cognitive costs for citizens to safeguard democracy. Focusing on scenarios where an incumbent seizes control over an electoral commission and an opposition politician does not concede defeat, I implement a within-subject experiment in Poland that closely follows the sequence of presidential elections. Results suggest that citizens dislike past undemocratic elite conduct, but neither the entire survey electorate nor any segment is willing to reconsider their initial vote choices in a subsequent election. The study has implications for why citizens often fail to avert democratic decay in representative democracies.