Examining Democratic Backsliding in the United States: Insights from Political Scientist Milan Svolik

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
November 6, 2023

Milan Svolik stands in the atrium outside his office

In 1931, Rand McNally first published The Histomap, advertised today as “a cultural infographic that provides a visual snapshot of 4,000 years of world history” through a colorful “river of time” depicting the “relative power of contemporary states, nations, and empires.”

It’s all there. The Egyptians build the Great Temple of Amon in Thebes. Christianity rises in Rome. Huns advance across the Volga. Education and literature flourish in the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Napoleon becomes emperor of France. The British Empire expands.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has a copy on his office wall. Reflecting on his decision to resign at the end of his term in the face of growing anti-democratic behavior among members of his party, Romney told The Atlantic how the map struck him for its stark narrative of nation-states’ rise and collapse. And its large cast of autocrats.

“A man gets some people around him and begins to oppress and dominate others,” Romney said, musing if there were something biological about male aggression on a global scale. “I don’t know. But in the history of the world, that’s what happens.”

Milan Svolik also obsesses over the rise and fall of democracies. A professor of political science and faculty fellow with the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Svolik studies the politics of authoritarian regimes and democratization.

On Nov. 14, Svolik will participate in an online panel discussion about the current danger to American democracy with Jacob Hacker, Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science, and Susan Stokes, Tiffany and Margaret Black Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. Register for the event on Zoom.

We spoke with Svolik recently to discuss the current relevance of his work on governance and political behavior the United States and Europe and why ordinary people might support politicians who undermine democracy.

ISPS: How worried are you about democratic backsliding in the United States?

Milan Svolik: My reading of the contemporary state of democracy in the U.S. is that the question is not really about how likely democratic backsliding is. Because it is happening now. Most people are worried about Trump, but the level at which backsliding has been happening — even before Trump — is the state level.

ISPS: How so?

MS: American federalism is unique in the following sense: the states get to set their own rules for the conduct of elections. I’m not aware of this being the case anywhere else in the world. In most countries, even if they have a federal constitution — think Brazil or Germany — elections are conducted according to a uniform format set at the national level. But in the U.S., the ability of states to set their own rules for the conduct of elections creates opportunities to tilt the playing field in favor of the party that currently controls the state legislature and the governorship.

ISPS: You’re talking about extreme partisan gerrymandering, voter ID laws, restrictions to early voting or voting by mail — stuff like that.

MS: Yes, and while it has primarily been the Republican party that has been pushing the boundaries of what is constitutional and legally acceptable in order to gain an electoral advantage, what worries me is the emergence across states of a partisan tit-for-tat in this domain.

ISPS: Like when Democrats in the New York State Legislature approved a redistricting map that was thrown out by the state’s top court for being unconstitutional?

MS: Yes. This occurred just before last year’s midterm elections. What was concerning to me were the justifications offered by New York Democrats: Because Republicans had engaged in similar gerrymanders in states like Texas and Florida, they argued, the Democrats would only be a disadvantaging their own party if they refrained from doing the same when they have the opportunity.

ISPS: And this creates something of an anti-democratic arms race?

MS: Yes. That might not be the intention in any single case, but in the aggregate, that is the dynamic that is emerging. The claim is we would like to play fair, but because the other side is not, we cannot afford not to gerrymander.

ISPS: ISPS is a nonpartisan interdisciplinary social science institution. Is the preservation of democracy nonpartisan?

MS: Absolutely. It’s a principle that should be above partisanship. As part of my research, I conduct experiments in many places around the world where I give voters a choice between two candidates, typically described by their parties and their policy proposals. My colleagues and I randomly assign one candidate to propose something undemocratic. The idea is to figure out to what extent people are willing to prioritize democratic principles in their political choices, especially when these are in conflict with other political objectives. And throughout the world, I have yet to find a country in which people actually reward politicians who propose undemocratic policies. Now, such commitment to democracy can sometimes be alarmingly low, as among the supporters of the governing party in Hungary or among extreme partisans in the United States. But overall, electorates in the aggregate tend to penalize politicians who undermine democracy.

ISPS: This sounds comforting.

MS: At this level, yes. People dislike politicians who undermine democracy. But it is somewhat concerning when you realize how much people can be willing to sacrifice democracy when a politician proposes, for example, a policy they like.

ISPS: Let’s get into that. In a recent paper, you and your co-authors show that when Europeans are faced with a choice between democracy and partisan loyalty people are more likely to choose their ideological interests over the health of democracy. Can anything be done to counteract this impulse to either embrace extremism or at least turn a blind eye toward a candidate or a party’s anti-democratic inclinations if they support their policy goals?

MS: One contrast between many European countries and the United States is that European countries typically have three or more political parties. One advantage of a multiparty system is that you don’t have to choose between one candidate who is undemocratic but whose policies you really like and a candidate who is democratic in principle but whose policies you can’t stand. With multiple parties, the choice a voter faces is often not that stark. For example, European voters generally don’t have to choose between candidates like Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. In a parliamentary system, there are intermediate choices through which you can both side with democracy and vote for an ideologically acceptable alternative.

ISPS: In 2020, you and former ISPS graduate fellow Matthew Graham conducted a similar stress test of the public’s potential for authoritarianism in the United States. What did you find? Are there any substantive differences between Americans and Europeans in their tolerance for anti-democratic inclinations? Is Our democracy in Danger? Institution for Social and Policy Studies

MS: I think both types of studies arrive at one concerning conclusion: we may have been historically underestimating how easily people are willing to trade off democracy for other political objectives, such as specific policies or partisan loyalty.

ISPS: But I thought people don’t support candidates who seek to undermine democracy?

MS: Until they are confronted with a choice that puts a price on democracy. Political scientists often survey people and ask questions like “how important is democracy to you?” People across the world tend to effectively answer “very important.” They might not believe democracy is perfect, but they generally do believe it is the best form of government available. And yet when faced with the type of dilemmas that mirror real-world political tradeoffs, people will be willing to sacrifice democratic principles for a preferred policy outcome. Particularly among strong partisans or in elections with stark choices, people are willing to prioritize partisanship over democratic principles.

ISPS: Do Americans from each party now distrust the other side’s commitment to democracy enough to justify their own anti-democratic behavior?

MS: I am currently working on paper with Matthew Graham to look at this — whether there is a cycle of partisan mistrust in the United States. When you ask people how much they are committed to democracy, it can be hard to believe their answers because it’s easy to posture. So, we conducted experiments in which we try to give people a choice between two real-world candidates for a state legislature. We asked the study subjects to split 10 cents between the two candidates. In one experiment, for instance, we had a candidate whose party was advocating to move legislative redistricting authority from a nonpartisan demographer to the legislature, an option that benefits the party in power and disempowers voters. The other candidate wanted to keep the authority in the hands of the nonpolitical actor, allowing residents to elect candidates of their choice without their votes being diluted. Our early results show that strong partisans in particular donate more to the non-democratic option that advantages their political party — an average of 7 cents out of the 10. In this way, by their choices rather than words, people reveal where they stand on democratic principles.

ISPS: In all your work on how polarization trumps civic virtue, have you found any answer to the question of when we can reasonably expect the public to serve as a check on the authoritarian temptations of elected politicians?

MS: One way I try to approach this is to ask what type of citizen is willing to put democratic principles above partisanship. That is, suppose we give people a choice between a candidate they like policy-wise but who also exhibits authoritarian tendencies and one they dislike but who is playing by the rules. Who will choose the latter?

ISPS: Have you discovered any typical characteristics of such a citizen?

MS: The research I have conducted so far indicates that three variables strongly predict commitment to democracy. One is democratic competence. If you ask subjects to rate a battery of actions taken by politicians, some of which violate democratic principles, a respondent who correctly identifies such actions is highly likely to do so in other settings, too. Both in real life and in hypothetical experiments, they are willing to vote against candidates who go against democracy, even if doing so goes against their policy interests.

ISPS: So, simply the ability to identify anti-democratic actions can indicate a tendency to oppose candidates inclined toward such actions. What’s the second trait?

MS: The second trait is something known in the psychological literature as an authoritarian personality.

ISPS: What’s that?

MS: It’s a measure of a tendency — possibly acquired early in life — toward obeying authority or adhering to a strict hierarchy. One approach to measuring it is to ask questions that are non-political but still capture that tendency, such as whether you believe it is more important for a child to be obedient or curious. People who answer “obedient” and similarly to other such questions score higher on this measure of authoritarianism. And they also tend to be more willing to tolerate candidates who undermine democracy.

ISPS: And the third trait?

MS: The third one is general trust. Do you think people can be trusted, or do you need to be careful when dealing with people? People who are more trustful are more likely to be the type of person to reject politicians who undermine democracy.

ISPS: Is there anything we can do to encourage pro-democratic characteristics?

MS: Well, one thing that’s surprising to me about what characterizes the kind of citizen who is resilient to anti-democratic behavior is how many other traits don’t score as highly. Measures such as income, education, or even being satisfied with how democracy works. These seem a lot easier to influence than something like an authoritarian personality. But we can do something to improve democratic competence. And maybe even trust. So, I’m hopeful.

ISPS: How much of the rise of an authoritarian regime is specific to the history and evolving conditions within a country and how much can be attributed to forces and human tendencies that might be more universal? Are there important roles for serendipity and uniquely charismatic, lucky, and/or opportunistic individuals?

MS: I worry that I don’t have a really good answer. One factor that we observe in many countries where democracy is under threat are high levels of polarization. This is what you see in the U.S., Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. In polarized societies, voters face stark trade-offs between democratic principles and partisan interest. Or put differently, in polarized societies, siding with democracy implies a higher political cost of doing so.

ISPS: As someone who has studied democratic backsliding for years, did you ever expect it to become so topical among non-academics in the United States?

MS: No. Not at all. If anything, one of the most robust cross-national correlations in the study of democratization is that the type of country that should be the least vulnerable is one with a high gross domestic product per capita. Wealth should be a source of immunity to democratic erosion, along with simply how long a country has been democratic up to that point.

ISPS: By those measures, the United States would seem to qualify as fairly resilient.

MS: Yes. Which is why the most puzzling aspect of this for me is why would people — especially people who claim to be committed to democratic principles — vote for candidates who undermine democratic principles? The answer I have been arriving at is they are trading off democracy for something. What is it that is so important to them they are willing to forgive this loss of democracy? And while the trend is troubling, I’m relieved to see that — at least so far — it seems that a pivotal slice of the U.S. electorate is in fact willing to side with democracy.