By Eizo Lang-Ezekiel
The death of democracy does not always occur with a coup d’état or a revolution. Instead, it often decays one small step at a time, with gradual norm breaking by politicians while people stay passive or even supportive. Democracy has weakened in many countries, such as in Turkey, Hungary and Brazil, but many are not questioning the current state of democracy on American soil. Americans dearly value their democracy, but the intensification of polarization has shown that they also deeply value their political parties and often resent their rivals. This made me wonder, if Denisonians were placed in a situation where they had to choose between preserving democratic principles and having their party beat their opponent, which would they choose? In other words, are Americans more loyal to democracy or to their political party?
To find out, I created an experiment for Denisonians with two fake news stories from the 2018 midterm elections conducted as part of my political science senior seminar. The experimental treatments  described a candidate expressing his frustration over his opponent’s insults, funding methods, and gerrymandering, before declaring that he would “use any possible means to make sure [his] opponent does not fill a seat in Congress.” In this way, he violates democratic principles by refusing to accept his opponent as a legitimate rival and by anticipating to reject the outcome of a fair election. The two news stories are identical word for word, except that the parties of the candidates are switched so that half of the survey respondents would read a story where a Democrat violates democratic norms and the other half where a Republican violates norms. Respondents were then asked if this behavior was justified.
So, what results did this experiment yield? It showed that Denisonians were much more tolerant of their own party’s candidate acting undemocratically than their rival candidate. Figure 1 shows student reactions to the Democratic candidate (left panel) and the Republican candidate (right panel) bending democratic norms, with lines for Democratic (blue) and Republican (red) identifiers. Good democratic citizens should find it unacceptable that a candidate threatens to refuse the outcome of a fair election, yet 58% of Democratic respondents opposed such behavior by the Republican candidate but only 24% opposed it for their own Democratic candidate. Likewise, 63% of Republicans opposed this behavior for the Democratic candidate but only 25% opposed it for their Republican candidate.
So, what are some implications of these results? They reflect the negative effects of polarization, showing that voters are prioritizing their party’s success over the preservation of democratic norms. People in the United States generally agree that democracy is the best form of government which is why if American democracy were clearly under immediate threat, we could expect them to react and fight to preserve it. However, democratic decay often occurs one subtle step after another which makes it go unnoticed by most citizens until it is too late. Therefore, seeing that partisans are acting so differently when their own candidate breaks norms compared to a rival candidate shows that people seem ready to support a politician who undermines and threatens American democracy.
I hope that this study can serve as a wakeup call. A healthy democracy should have a population that places democracy above all, meaning that people who really value democracy should not support a candidate violating democratic principles, regardless of his or her ideology. Unfortunately, Denisonians did not act in such a way. Despite the many differences and hostilities between Democrats and Republicans, we must remember not to take our democracy for granted. No matter how much certain policies can harm us, no matter how much we want change, and no matter how much we dislike our rival partisans, it is thanks to democracy that we can change our leader and have a say in who is next.
Eizo Lang-Ezekiel is an introverted extrovert who spends his time playing soccer, being indecisive, and making plans to flee the country after graduation.
1. This research was inspired by the book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which I strongly recommend as it is easy to read and very insightful on the matter.
2. These are the experimental treatments with questions:
Please read the following passage from a recent news story and we’ll ask you a few questions afterward.
[Democratic Candidate] Josh Harder, the Democratic candidate for California’s 10th district has been creating controversy in his race for Congress by questioning the legitimacy of his Republican opponent, Jeff Denham. He has notably complained about the gerrymandering of the district and is infuriated by Denham who insulted his family and supposedly used “illegal fundraising methods.” Harder is confident that he will win the election despite recent polls only showing him ahead by 3 to 5 percentage points. However, when asked about the possibility of his opponent winning, he has suggested that he would not accept the outcome of the election and “would use any possible means to make sure my opponent does not fill a seat in Congress.”
Is Democrat Josh Harder justified or unjustified in his concerns about his Republican opponent? [response options in the figures]
[Republican Candidate] Please read the following passage from a recent news story and we’ll ask you a few questions afterward.
Cody Harris, the Republican candidate for Texas’ 8th district has been creating controversy in his race for Congress by questioning the legitimacy of his Democratic opponent, Wesley Ratcliff. He has notably expressed his frustration over gerrymandering in his district and is infuriated by Ratcliff who insulted his family and supposedly used “illegal fundraising methods.” Harris is confident that he will win the election despite recent polls only showing him ahead by 3 to 5 percentage points. However, when asked about the possibility of his opponent winning, he has suggested that he would not accept the outcome of the election and “would use any possible means to make sure my opponent does not fill a seat in Congress.”
Is Republican Cody Harris justified or unjustified in his concerns about his Democratic opponent? [response options in the figures]