Communicating democratic subversions to citizens

Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties


Theresa Gessler


In many countries, leaders have violated democratic norms without being punished. Citizens have often acquiesced to such subversions of democracy, despite widespread condemnation of policies by the media, opposing politicians and international organisations. A focal question following from this is whether attempts at persuading citizens to tolerate or oppose subversions of democracy are effective. Building on literature about the role of partisanship in acquiescence to democratic backsliding and subversions of democracy, we ask how communication surrounding democratic subversion shapes this behaviour. Specifically, we question whether the reasons governments and opponents provide for and against policy proposals that subvert democratic norms affect the likelihood that citizens oppose democratic subversions by governments they favour. We conduct a vignette experiment with 1,300 respondents from Germany and Poland, and show that political communication, especially how governments motivate their proposals, has substantial effects on the likelihood that citizens acquiesce to democratic subversions. Our results highlight the importance of the rhetoric surrounding attempts at democratic backsliding, which has so far been neglected by research on citizen responses to democratic backsliding.