The Demand Side of Democratic Backsliding: How Divergent Understandings of Democracy Shape Political Choice

Abstract

Why do citizens in democracies fail to punish political candidates who openly violate democratic standards at the ballot box? 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. We shed doubt on this assumption by showing that divergent understandings of democracy coexist among citizens and affect vote choice. We leverage a novel approach to estimate individual-level citizen commitment to democracy by means of a candidate choice conjoint experiment in Poland, a country experiencing democratic backsliding in a context of deep polarization. We find support for our claim 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. Thus, we contend that a lack of attitudinal consolidation around liberal democratic norms explains continued voter support for authoritarian-leaning leaders.