Reference Points and Democratic Backsliding
65 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2019 Last revised: 12 Dec 2020
Date Written: October 26, 2019
We propose a theory of democratic backsliding where citizens' retrospective assessment of an incumbent politician depends on expectations that are endogenous to the incumbent's behavior. We show that democratic backsliding can occur even when most citizens and most politicians intrinsically value democracy. By challenging norms of democracy, an incumbent can lower citizens' expectations; by not doubling down on this challenge, he can then beat this lowered standard. As a result, gradual backsliding can actually enhance an incumbent's popular support not despite of, but because of citizens' opposition to backsliding. This mechanism can only arise when citizens are uncertain enough about incumbents' preferences (e.g., owing to programmatically weak parties). Mass polarization, instead, can reduce the occurrence of backsliding while simultaneously increasing its severity.
Keywords: Democratic Backsliding, Authoritarianism, Reference Dependent Preferences
JEL Classification: D70, D72, D78
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation