What crisis of democracy? Scholar Larry Bartels says the real crisis is corrupt leaders

“The notion that democracy is in crisis provides a compelling hook for much recent political writing,” writes political scientist Larry Bartels on the first page of his new book, “Democracy Erodes From the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe.” “One aim of this book,” he continues, “is to document the gulf between the alarming portrait of democracy in crisis and the more prosaic reality of contemporary European public opinion.” 

That’s not to say that democracy is just fine, and that figures like Donald Trump or European counterparts like Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Giorgia Meloni in Italy are nothing to worry about. Nor is it to say that troubling populist attitudes don’t exist. But it is to say that dramatic shifts in public opinion aren’t the driving force that should concern us — first, because they haven’t actually happened and second, because these elite figures are the primary vectors of the threat, and bungling establishment elites are far more responsible for giving them an opening than any modest, and usually transitory, shifts in public opinion.  

Bartels combines a broad view of European opinion dynamics — on economic crisis, immigration, the welfare state and confidence in government — with concise considerations of specific examples whose significance, he argues, has largely been misconstrued. Most notably, he explains that neither Hungary’s Fidesz nor Poland’s Law and Justice party came to power as populist parties, much less authoritarian ones; they remade themselves as such after the fact.

While Bartels focuses on Europe almost exclusively, the parallels to American politics aren’t difficult to draw. And perhaps because of this European focus, it may be easier for Americans to grasp what’s going on more clearly, and refocus our concerns accordingly, as Bartels himself suggests. I spoke with Larry Bartels recently; this transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

You begin your book by saying, “There is a palpable sense of crisis in Western democracies,” and citing some examples of books on the subject, but go on to note that “the conventional wisdom about a ‘crisis of democracy’ in contemporary Europe is strikingly at odds with evidence from public opinion surveys.” Broadly speaking, what do those surveys show?

My understanding of how most people think about what’s happened in Europe over the last couple of decades is that there’s been a big shift in opinion, especially in the wake of the Euro crisis, with voters becoming increasingly alienated from incumbent governments and from the European Union as an institution, and eager to support right-wing populist challengers of one sort or another. In fact, if you look at the survey data, it turns out that there’s been little change on most important dimensions of public opinion. In cases where it has changed, it has mostly changed for the better rather than for the worse. 

You write that the “deeper issue here is that the focus on public opinion as a barometer of democratic functioning is itself fundamentally misguided.” You argue instead for “an elitist account of democratic crisis,” in contrast to the  “folk theory” of “rule by the people.” What do you mean by that?

Well, I don’t mean, as a normative matter, that it’s a good thing for elites to call the shots and to manage what happens in democratic systems. But as an empirical matter, that’s mostly what we seem to observe. The notion that countries are in trouble because their citizens have suddenly developed bad attitudes about democracy or about their government mostly turns out not to hold water. 

“The notion that countries are in trouble because their citizens have suddenly developed bad attitudes about democracy or about their government mostly turns out not to hold water.”

If we look at the places where democracy has seriously eroded — in Hungary and Poland, for example — there haven’t been big shifts in public opinion that precipitated those changes. What happened is that particular leaders decided that they would exploit the opportunities that they had to entrench themselves in power. So that’s a real democratic crisis. It’s had serious effects on the quality of democracy in those places, but it’s not attributable, in any real sense, to public opinion or the failures of ordinary citizens. 

You write, “Contrary to the familiar image of a wave of populism in the wake of the Euro-crisis, European public opinion has long provided a reservoir of right-wing populist sentiment that political entrepreneurs have drawn on with varying degrees of success at different times in different places.” This striking metaphorical contrast raises some questions. First, what is meant by “populist sentiment”? And how can that be measured in public opinion data? 

I use these European social surveys to get a handle on what attitudes are predicting support for right-wing populist parties in various places. So I look at 16 different examples of right-wing populist parties. They obviously aren’t all identical in what they stand for or how they attract voters, but they have a kind of family resemblance, and they’ve all been pointed to by various people as examples of right-wing populist success. The attitudes that predict support for those parties are conservative ideology and worldview, anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-EU sentiments, distrust of politicians, concerns about democracy and, to a lesser extent, economic disaffection. I measure those key attitudinal predictors in all these different countries over time, and find that there really has been no overall change in the extent to which people adopt these attitudes. 

So that’s where the metaphor of a reservoir comes from. There are a lot of people in all these European countries who hold those attitudes to various degrees. But that’s not new; that’s been true all along. What varies from time to time and from place to place is the extent to which, on the one hand, insurgent politicians manage to exploit those attitudes at the polls, and on the other hand, the extent to which mainstream politicians either successfully channel those attitudes into constructive politics or give into them and cater to the populists on the extremes of the political system, who are trying to push for radical change. 

So there’s a distinction to be made between conservative ideology and conservative worldviews. Could you elucidate that?

Yes. The surveys ask people where they stand on the left/right scale, from far left to far right. For some but not all people, that’s a meaningful way to describe themselves politically. It summarizes views about lots of different things, maybe somewhat differently in different times and places, but generally people have a sense of themselves as being conservative or left on this scale and so that’s one measure which I call left/right ideology or conservative ideology. 

The measure of worldview is intended to tap a kind of personality difference, with some people more interested in emphasizing values of security and tradition and stability, on one hand, and on the other hand people who are more interested in flexibility and creativity and openness to new experiences. Some scholars have referred to that dimension as authoritarianism, with people on the right, who adopt what I call conservative worldviews, being described as authoritarian. I think that’s probably misleading language, and I prefer a more neutral description. I should say that the correlation empirically between this measure of conservative worldview and self-described conservative ideology is pretty weak. So there are a lot of people who think of themselves as conservatives but aren’t particularly conservative in terms of their worldview, and vice versa. 

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You mention the “reservoir” of right-wing populist opinion. How how large is that reservoir and how potentially dangerous is it?

Well, obviously how large it is depends on where you define the threshold: How strong do these people’s sympathies have to be? But it’s much larger than the set of people we actually observe voting for these right-wing populist parties. There’s a figure in the book: There’s a huge distribution of attitudes that looks like a bell-shaped curve, but the set of people who actually vote for populist parties is disproportionately on the right. That’s not surprising, but even the people who have strongly populist attitudes are far from certain to be voting for populist parties. In some cases, that’s because there isn’t any viable populist party in their country. In many other cases, it’s because they’re supporting more traditional conservative parties. 

So the optimistic take on this is that mainstream politicians have managed to keep most of these people on board, in spite of the fact that they have attitudes that might encourage them to support right-wing populist parties. The pessimistic view is that there’s a lot more potential out there if successful right-wing populist entrepreneurs can manage to mobilize it more effectively than they have so far.

What demographic forces are correlated with this, or help to shape it? 

“Right-wing populist views and negative attitudes about immigration are strongly correlated with age. People who are most anti-immigrant tend to be older and are gradually aging out of the electorate.”

The most important one, I think, is that some of these right-wing populist views — and perhaps most importantly, negative attitudes about immigration — are strongly correlated with age. The people who are most anti-immigrant tend to be older and are gradually aging out of the electorate. They are being replaced by younger people who generally have more favorable or relaxed attitudes toward immigration. That’s one instance in which attitudes have become more favorable over the last 20 years, largely due to this process of demographic transition with younger, more pro-immigrant people replacing older, more anti-immigrant people. 

The global financial crisis was met with a swift and unified response in America,  but not in Europe. The rigid and recalcitrant policies of the EU were widely seen as driving Europe’s populist wave, as you mentioned earlier. But you also said that evidence wasn’t shown in the data. Can you talk generally about what was shown in the data and then what was shown in the countries where people suffered the most, such as Greece, Spain and Ireland? 

Generally, the response to the crisis was less well coordinated in Europe than in the U.S. There was recalcitrance, especially on the part of Germany, which was the most powerful economic player, in terms of bailing out the distressed countries on the periphery of Europe. There was a lot of back-and-forth about what the role of the European Union should be in coordinating a response. I think for those reasons the overall response was probably less effective in Europe than it was in the U.S., and especially ineffective in places where the Euro crisis hit hardest — in Greece and Spain, especially. 

The perception is that the economic dislocation that was generated by that set of events turned people against their incumbent governments, and against the established political system, and especially against the EU. That seems mostly not to be the case, if you look at attitudes toward the European Union. They dipped a bit during the crisis, but even at the worst of times people had more confidence, or said they had more confidence, in the EU than they did in their own national governments. As the crisis ebbed, support for the European Union and for further European integration began to increase again.

So I think the idea that this was somehow a big blow to the legitimacy of the European project or the possibility of further European integration is mistaken. The other thing that was surprising to me is that if you look at support for right-wing populist parties, in most places that turns out to be only weakly related or unrelated to this sense of economic disaffection. Even in the places where there was a good deal of economic disaffection, it doesn’t seem to translate nearly as much as conventional wisdom suggests into support for right-wing populist parties. 

What is the conventional wisdom about attitudes toward the welfare state in Europe, and how did that compare with the actual data? 

There’s been an ongoing sense of crisis about the amount of resources that European countries are pouring into their welfare states, especially as the populations age. There’s been a lot of handwringing about the sustainability of the welfare state, and when the Euro crisis came along there were significant austerity measures put in place in some countries, and renewed alarm about the future of the welfare state. 

If you look at the actual spending data in most places, there was a continued growth in real spending per capita on social programs of various sorts. The rate of spending increase slowed somewhat, by comparison with what it had been before the crisis, but in most places, there wasn’t a lot of substantial retrenchment. If you look at the places that were hardest hit, like Greece and Spain, there were some cuts in spending, but the bigger factor in those places was that the need for social spending expanded so rapidly, because the unemployment rates skyrocketed. So even modest increases in social spending wouldn’t have been sufficient to deal with the need. In those places there were real hardships among the people who were targeted by the crisis. But those were pretty localized experiences. If you look at Europe as a whole, those were the exceptions rather than the rule. But of course they got a huge amount of attention, and I think they color the perception of what was going on in Europe as a whole.  

Next you have a chapter on immigration. Again, what is the conventional wisdom, and how does that compare with what the data actually shows?

There’s been some increase in immigration, and people had thought that that would create increasing tensions as European societies try to integrate these newcomers. Then in 2015 there was a huge wave of refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, entering these European countries. There were some demonstrations and backlash against the immigrants, a lot of handwringing about how immigration was going to tear European democracies apart. If you look at the survey data on ordinary Europeans’ attitudes toward immigrants, they were basically stable, or in some cases became more favorable over time. 

“Places that had large waves of immigration were not generally more negative toward immigrants, nor did they tend generally to become less favorable toward immigrants as the numbers increased.”

The places that had large waves of immigration were not generally more negative toward immigrants, nor did they tend generally to become less favorable toward immigrants as the numbers increased. There was a lot of concern in Sweden, for example, which has had an especially large influx of immigrants. Nonetheless, general public attitudes toward immigration in Sweden are among the most favorable in Europe. In Germany where there was a huge wave of refugees, Angela Merkel took steps to allow for immigration that were viewed as politically courageous, and she may have paid some price at the polls for that. But overall, there was no shift in Germans’ attitudes toward immigration before, during or after this crisis of incoming refugees. So the price really had to do with the mobilization of a relatively small set of people who were anti-immigration, rather than with a big overall shift in public opinion on the issue.

Then you have a chapter on the supposed crisis in democratic legitimacy, from the EU down to specific political parties. What does the data tell us about this? 

Basically no change over this entire period. If you look at confidence in political leaders, look at trust in politicians, you look at satisfaction with the way democracy is operating, there are small ups and downs in particular countries over time, but overall really no shift in attitudes on any of those dimensions. Insofar as there have been ups and downs, they seem mostly correlated with economic ups and downs. So even the shifts that we do observe seem to have less to do with any fundamental sense of legitimacy of the democratic system than just with people’s moods about how things are going right now. 

You write in Chapter 6: “The populist ‘wave,’ such as it is, reflects changes in the behavior of political elites, not shifting public opinion.” What does the broad pattern of data tell us in this chapter? 

One general pattern is that the perception of increasing electoral support for these right-wing populist parties is much overstated. If you look at their average support, it has increased over this period, but very modestly. I think this has largely to do with the tendency to focus on instances of big run-ups in support for particular right-wing populist parties in particular places. So when a party gains support, it gets a huge amount of attention, and people wring their hands about the wave of populism. Then when the same party loses support it gets very little attention, and people don’t notice that the overall level is not shifting nearly as much as it seems to. So that’s one important piece of what’s going on. 

“The perception of increasing electoral support for right-wing populist parties is much overstated. If you look at their average support, it has increased over this period, but very modestly.”

The second important piece is that there is remarkably little connection between where these populist parties are doing well electorally and the underlying attitudes of citizens. If you look at the populist parties that are doing well, they’re often in places where the underlying level of popular sentiment is remarkably low by European standards. Switzerland and Norway and Sweden are places where right-wing populist parties have attracted significant electoral support, but where right-wing populist sentiment is remarkably low. Then there are other places where there is much more popular sentiment, but not all that much success for actual parties. I think that’s because the success of specific parties depends a lot on idiosyncratic contextual factors — the most important one maybe being the failure of mainstream conservative parties. 

In chapter 7, you take a deeper look at Hungary and Poland, where democratic erosion has been most severe. But how does what happened in those countries compare with the “populist wave” narrative? 

It doesn’t really connect very well. People often talk about the dangers of right-wing populism in Europe and point to lots of cases in which particular right-wing populist parties have gained support, and then say, “Think of all the bad things that could happen. Look at Poland and Hungary!” But what happened in Poland and Hungary, I think, turns out to have little to do with the kind of right-wing populist sentiment that has been a source of concern in other parts of Europe. 

In Hungary, the surveys before Orbán and his party Fidesz came to power in 2010 suggest that their supporters were pretty conventional mainstream conservatives. That’s not surprising, because they were a pretty conventional mainstream conservative party for a long time in the Hungarian system. Again, the main story there is about the corruption and collapse of the incumbent government, which left people looking for an alternative. Fidesz was the most obvious alternative, so they got 53% of the vote in a key election. 

But then, given the way the Hungarian electoral system works, that 53% of the vote translated into a two-thirds majority of seats in the parliament, and given the way the institutions there are set up, that allowed them to push through all kinds of changes in the constitution, electoral rules, the role of the court, cracking down on the independent media and so on. So after the election, there was a substantial erosion of democracy, but there wasn’t anything in the campaign or in the attitudes of the people who supported that party before they got elected that suggested that it had anything to do with right-wing populism or a hankering for authoritarianism. 

If you look at anti-immigrant sentiment, for example, there was a fair amount of anti-immigrant sentiment in Hungary, but it wasn’t at all connected to support for Fidesz in 2010. There was unhappiness with the European Union, but it wasn’t connected to support for Fidesz either. Once they got elected, they used the opportunity to entrench themselves in power, and one of the ways they did that was to castigate immigrants and complain about the EU, and so in subsequent elections those attitudes tend to become more strongly related to support for the party. But all that happened after the antidemocratic turn, rather than before. 

And what about Poland?

Similarly, before the election in which the Law and Justice party came to power, their support didn’t seem to have anything to do with the kinds of attitudes that have fueled support for right-wing populists in other parts of Europe. Once they got elected, they sort of followed Orbán’s example and began to entrench themselves in power in ways that were a more serious problem from the standpoint of democracy, but not something propelled in any obvious way by public sentiment or by the pattern in which they were elected. 

European multi-party parliamentary systems differ substantially from America’s two-party presidential system. But in your final chapter, you do make some comparisons.  What insights or lessons are transferable from what’s going on in Europe to the the U.S. situation?

Well, there are a lot of institutional differences. I think maybe the clearest pattern is that in multiparty systems it’s easier for right-wing populist parties to get a foothold in parliament. So you see lots of countries in Europe with proportional representation systems in which right-wing populist parties have gained significant support in parliament. That should not be surprising, but then what matters politically is how they influence the policymaking process. In a lot of these places they have been effectively shut out from political power. Even when they have significant representation in parliament, they been excluded from coalitions, for example. That’s not always the case, but it’s often the case that they have less power than their numbers in the parliament seem to warrant. 

In two-party systems like the U.S. or like Hungary — which is not quite a two-party system, but mostly a two-party system — it’s harder for those parties to get representation in the parliament. But if they can take over a major party, they can have a huge amount of political impact. That’s what happened in Hungary when Orbán turned the Fidesz Party to right-wing populism and had control of the institutions of government and was able to engage in significant political backsliding. I think the threat in the U.S. is parallel. The Republican Party has been significantly infiltrated by extremist sympathies, and the question is when and in what ways the party will be controlled by those elements. 

President Trump was in some ways, a kind of figurehead for extreme populism. But mostly he governed in a more conventional Republican conservative manner. The legislative priorities that he pushed were tax cuts for corporations, economic and environmental deregulation and conservative Supreme Court appointments. Those were all things that mainstream conservatives in the Republican Party were happy to go along with, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to the rest of what Trump was doing in exchange for those benefits. 

“The most important danger to democracy on Jan. 6 was not the rioters in the Capitol, but the Republican members of Congress who voted later that day to decertify electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.”

The question is, on one hand, how successfully will extremist elements infiltrate the Republican Party and on the other hand, how willing will mainstream conservatives be to cooperate with those elements in order to get what they want? So if we think about Jan. 6, it seems to me that the most important danger to democracy was not the rioters in the Capitol, but the Republican members of Congress who voted later that day to decertify electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania. They were people with real power who had a real plan that would have overturned the outcome of the election in a way that the protesters really couldn’t have. So the question is, how those people behave and to what extent they are constrained in their behavior by democratic norms and procedures, not whether the people at the base of the party are agitating for one thing or another.

In the section, “A Crisis of Democratic Theory,” you write: “Assessing threats to democracy requires us to agree, at least approximately, on what it is and how it works.” But you go on to say that  your book offers “no new theory of democracy,” and that it’s “a ground-clearing effort, not a construction project.” But if it’s not a construction project, what does it suggest such a project might require?

I think what we need is a theory of democracy that has some real understanding of, on one hand, the inevitable power and leeway of political elites and, on the other hand, the goals they should strive to achieve when they exercise that power. Much of our thinking about democracy is very focused on ordinary citizens and what they should or shouldn’t be doing in their role in the process. 

I’ve come increasingly to think that that’s a futile exercise. Ordinary people are pretty much what they are. We have a pretty good sense of how they behave. There are a lot of commonalities in their behavior across political systems with different cultures and different institutions. In all those places, regardless of the role of citizens, it’s the political leaders who really call the shots. So what we need is a better understanding of what democratic leadership entails, and how institutions can be made not to ensure, but at least to increase the probability that leaders will govern in enlightened ways, and on behalf of the interests of ordinary citizens. 

Finally, what’s the most important question I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer?

Well, you just started to ask it now, which is what would a better system of democracy look like? I don’t have the answer to that. I do have the sense that we tend to focus too much on trying to avoid every conceivable threat to democracy and to imagine that if only we got the system and the rules right, that the system would operate happily in perpetuity. I think in reality there’s a huge gray area between democracy and autocracy, and lots of different dimensions in which democracies perform better or worse. Maybe the sense that a lot of people in the U.S. and elsewhere have now that we’re in a period of crisis is a belated recognition that democracy in all times and places is partial and risky and chancy. 

One thing I’ve worked on in my career is to estimate the impact of ordinary people’s preferences on policy outcomes, both in the U.S. and other places. The implication of that work is that ordinary people’s views have very little impact on what their governments do. That was shown first in the United States, and people imagine that it has to do with particular features of the U.S., like our campaign finance system or the weakness of labor unions or our separation of powers. But then people began to do parallel studies in European countries that were supposed to be much more advanced democratic systems, like Sweden and Germany. They found much the same thing in those places, in spite of the fact that they have very different institutions and very different political cultures. 

That suggests to me that there are much more fundamental factors that limit the impact of ordinary citizens on the behavior of leaders in any political system, and that what we really have to focus on is how we can socialize leaders to want the right things, and constrain them to avoid the worst excesses of misuse of power in political systems. 

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