Why do we vote for undemocratic politicians?

In countries with long-standing democracies such as Denmark and the US, we tend to turn a blind eye to undemocratic behaviour from our politicians. In countries where democracy is still relatively new, the citizens are much more attentive, whereas in old democracies, we risk paving the way for undemocratic heads of government.


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The vast majority of people prefer to live in a democracy, so why vote for a leader with undemocratic tendencies? There is a good chance that democratic experience plays a part in this.

Some might think that it is easier for politicians to get away with undemocratic actions in new democracies where democratic traditions have not yet taken root. But in fact, it is the other way around.

It is in old democracies such as Denmark that the attention to undemocratic actions is less strong. We are so accustomed to democracy that we think: ‘A democratic breakdown would not happen here’. In contrast, people in new democracies are very attentive to issues that might harm democracy. People still remember the autocratic past of the country and consider democracy something you have to fight for.

This is the result of new research from PhD student in political science Kristian Vrede Skaaning Frederiksen from Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University. The result is based on a statistical analysis of 43 democracies in the period 1962-2018 and has just been published in the prestigious journal European Journal of Political Research.


"In Denmark, we all have some democratic duties that we need to be reminded of."

Kristian Vrede Skaaning Frederiksen, ph.d.-student, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University,

Why democratic experience makes us indifferent

How citizens react to undemocratic behaviour is quite a fundamental question for democratic sustainability. For this reason, Frederiksen considers it critical when democratic experience makes us indifferent.

And the results of his study are clear. Undemocratic actions such as making life difficult for critical media, obstructing the opposition and undermining the independence of courts of law decrease support for the responsible government in new democracies, while there is no connection between the undemocratic behaviour of a government and voter support in the old democracies.

Frederiksen points to three reasons why we become more indifferent to undemocratic behaviour in old democracies, while people are still on their guard in young democracies.


1) Other people will take care of it

In old democracies, there is a tendency to let things run their course without attaching much importance to them. If citizens even notice that the government is doing something undemocratic, many think that other people will probably take care of it. This could be other political actors such as the opposition, which is expected to hold the government somewhat in check.

“But this gives us a false sense of security,” Frederiksen cautions, calling for greater alertness.

“It could be minor violations of democracy and thus a gradual deterioration, which is hard to detect, and not a military coup from one day to the next. The final step on this scale is elections that are no longer free and meaningful. To avoid this scenario, it is important to be alert early on,” he says.

In young democracies, you do not take it for granted that other political actors will take care of things. You are less certain whether to trust other political forces to be aware of undemocratic behaviour. This makes it important to be on your guard and react more strongly to undemocratic acts of government.


2) The deterrent effect of autocracy

The other reason emphasised by Frederiksen is that in old democracies, you do not remember the time before democracy and thus cannot be deterred by these memories. Through the years of democracy, citizens have built goodwill towards and trust in political authorities and institutions, which make them more forgiving of the politicians’ wrongdoing.

In young democracies however, the autocratic past is still in fresh memory, and this has a deterring effect. Scepticism and distrust are more widespread, and you know that democracy is vulnerable and could break down unless you stand up against undemocratic leaders.


3) The party loyalty is strong

Thirdly, our loyalty to political parties has grown along with our democratic experience. According to Frederiksen, attachments to political parties become stronger as the democracy ages.

“It crystallises, and people have stronger ties to political parties. If you are very supportive of a particular party, you are more likely to turn a blind eye if they violate democratic norms and rules,” he says, continuing:

“We prioritise party identification and the state of the economy over democracy. In old democracies, these factors replace democratic vulnerability as a relevant concern,” says Frederiksen.


People should be on their guard

Frederiksen highlights Venezuela and Turkey as examples of countries with a relatively high level of democratic experience, where many citizens have supported the country's leaders despite their undemocratic actions. After many years as democracies, they experienced a gradual erosion of their democratic rights. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez placed his loyal supporters at the courts of law, and in Turkey, Erdogan harassed the media and purged the administration. Nevertheless, they both received great support from the population in several elections.

In Denmark, we do not see many violations of democratic principles. For this reason, the study cannot show whether such violations would be sanctioned in Denmark. But it seems plausible that these findings could be generalised to fit a Danish context. Perhaps, the closest actions to violations are some of the COVID-19 measures. However, these have largely been legitimate.

“As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been necessary to introduce restrictions on democratic freedoms in Denmark as well as other countries, for example the freedom of assembly. It has been legitimate to make these restrictions. But the citizens need to be alert and critical of whether these measures are really necessary,” Frederiksen cautions.

In addition, it is important that we remain vigilant about our democracy in case we get an undemocratic leader. The citizens should preferably function as the backbone of the democracy and detect undemocratic tendencies.

“The population supports their party and often reacts like their party. So I would advise people to be critical of their government without distrusting it. We must not assume that our democracy is invulnerable. Democratic norms can be threatened in old democracies. In Denmark, we all have some democratic duties that we need to be reminded of,” Frederiksen concludes.


About the result:

Kristian Vrede Skaaning Frederiksen has conducted a statistical analysis of 43 democracies in the period 1962-2018 on the basis of data on:  

  • whether governments act in an undemocratic way – understood as disrespecting the constitution, oppressing civil society organisations and suppressing the freedom of speech  
    Data from Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) 

  • democratic experience – measured as the country's experience with democracy over time  
    Data from V-Dem and Lexical Index of Electoral Democracy  

  • the proportion of positive responses to the government in surveys (approval ratings) 
    Data from the Executive Approval Project 

He examines whether the approval ratings increase or decrease when the governments act in an undemocratic way, and whether there is a difference between new and old democracies. 

The scientific article “When Democratic Experience Distorts Democracy: Citizen Reactions to Undemocratic Incumbent Behavior” can be found in European Journal of Political Research


Kristian Vrede Skaaning Frederiksen 
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