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

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 a common understanding of democracy to underpin citizens’ evaluations of different candidates, resulting in a trade-off between undemocratic practices and partisan or economic considerations. In contrast, we argue and show empirically that divergent understandings of democracy coexist among citizens and affect vote choice. We leverage a novel approach to estimate the behavioral consequences of such individual-level understandings of 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 who adhere less strongly to liberal democratic norms 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 democracy explains continued voter support for authoritarian-leaning leaders.