When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents

45 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2018

See all articles by Milan Svolik

Milan Svolik

Yale University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: September 3, 2018

Abstract

We propose a novel explanation for the most prevalent form of democratic breakdown after the end of the Cold War: the subversion of democracy by incumbents. In the classics of democratization research as well as in mainstream democracy promotion practice, the public's disapproval is assumed to serve as a check on incumbents' temptations to subvert democracy. We explain why this check fails in polarized societies. In the latter, voters have a strong preference for their favorite candidate, which makes it costly for them to punish an incumbent by voting for a challenger. Incumbents exploit this lack of credible punishment by manipulating the democratic process in their favor. By contrast, a mass of centrist voters provides precisely the kind of credible deterrent against manipulation that polarized societies lack. Our analysis of an original survey experiment conducted in Venezuela demonstrates that voters in polarized societies are indeed willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan interests and that their willingness to do so increases in the intensity of their partisanship. These findings suggest the need to re-evaluate conventional measures of public support for democracy and provide a new answer to a fundamental question about its survival: When can we reasonably expect the public to serve as a check on the authoritarian temptations of elected politicians?

Keywords: democratic backsliding, electoral manipulation, polarization, support for democracy

Suggested Citation

Svolik, Milan, When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents (September 3, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3243470 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3243470

Milan Svolik (Contact Author)

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, CT 06520-8269
United States

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