Published 07/02/2023 18:26 | Edited 02/08/2023 19:02
Three political scientists from a university in Pennsylvania (USA) carried out a national survey that shows that a large part of the American people, of divergent political tendencies, seek leaders who are fundamentally anti-democratic. A worrying trend that demonstrates the latency of the willingness to elect authoritarian politicians who are willing to break the civilizing rules of democracy.
The researchers perceive a general discomfort of people in dealing with the debates and divergences of democracy. They prefer to elect someone who will impose their views and beliefs on the rest of society. The fact that voters on the progressive spectrum also support this type of policy is even more worrying and reveals the poisonous environment of societies divided by political hatred.
Despite all the upheavals of recent months in the USA, with flagrant defeats, inquiries and arrests of Republican and Trumpist coup plotters, the authors record that more than 100 members of Congress who opposed the results of Joe Biden’s election won their reelection campaigns. And at least seven people who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally [Parem a Roubalheira] on January 6, which culminated in the invasion of the Capitol, were elected to state legislatures and two were elected to Congress.
Scholars Tarah Williams, André Bloeser, and Brian Harward often investigate how committed citizens are to democracy, so they seek to measure that willingness among ordinary Americans.
Using a nationwide sample of 1,500 respondents, they found that a large proportion of respondents are willing to support leaders who violate democratic principles.
The scale goes from Strong Democrats (strong Democrat), Not strong Democrats (not strong Democrat), Lean Democrat (weak Democrat), Independent, Lean Republican (weak Republican), Not strong Republicans (not strong Republican) and Strong Republicans (strong Republicans ).
Support for anti-democratic leaders
About two decades ago, a major study found that about 1 in 4 Americans supported leaders who are uncompromising and take decisive action despite opposition. These people said they would also prefer experts to make these decisions, even without being elected. The current study replicates this finding nearly 20 years later, but sheds light on a troubling reason for this preference.
At the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation, researchers asked people about their willingness to support leaders who promised to protect them by any means necessary, even if it meant violating the expected standards of behavior in a democracy, a set of principles often called “democratic norms”.
The questions were developed based on existing research on the strategies that leaders with anti-democratic leanings use to gain public support. In this way, they brought to light practices of authoritarian politicians who depart from the legitimate election to a gradual process of hardening the government, until the rupture with democracy and its institutions.
In the study, they ask about behaviors that herald the early stages of democratic decline. For example, citizens are asked if they thought “the only way our country can solve its current problems is by supporting tough leaders who will crack down on those who undermine American values.” They also ask about explicit violations of democratic principles, such as shutting down news organizations and “breaking the rules to get things done”.
By default, some of these questions allow citizens to use their own interpretations of actions such as “repression” and “breaking the rules”. The goal, according to sociologists, was to determine whether citizens were inclined towards leaders who seek power by promising retribution to some groups and benefits to others, because this rhetorical strategy is often a precursor to explicit violations of democratic institutions.
Likewise, the wording of the questions is designed to allow respondents to rely on their own ideas about what “American values” and “people like you” mean. Our interest was what people would allow leaders to do to protect their idea of America and the Americans they identify with.
As a result, the authors found that people who want this kind of protective but undemocratic leadership were by far the most likely to want leaders who would take decisive and uncompromising action. “These people didn’t just want their side to win a political contest for power. They were literally willing to say they would ‘bend the rules’ to do this, a clear violation of the democratic ideal that everyone should play by the same rules,” the researchers explain.
For each item, they found that at least a third of the people they interviewed agreed or would strongly agree with these subtle or overt violations of democratic norms.
Across the political spectrum
Anti-democratic statements are adopted by members of both American parties, but most commonly by Republicans.
For example, about 90% of Republicans would support tough leaders who crack down on groups that “undermine American values” – no matter how poll respondents define those values. More than half of Democrats take the same position. Perhaps even more remarkably, nearly half of citizens who strongly support the Republican Party and over a third of those who strongly support the Democratic Party endorse the view that it is acceptable to “break the rules” for people like them to achieve political goals.
This echoes another survey that found that Americans, on both sides of the political aisle, are willing to sacrifice democratic principles and practices if it means their political party will win elections.
An appetite for protection
The authors consider that the key to understanding these visions is the desire for protection. “Many Americans see those of the other party as existential threats to the country — and also close-minded, dishonest, immoral, and unintelligent. All this coexists with mounting evidence that more people are willing to support political violence in certain circumstances,” they say.
Many citizens prefer leaders willing to undermine democracy if it means protecting people like them from groups that threaten their values or status. Although most Americans do not subscribe to these beliefs, a substantial part of the country does.