Taking the Temperature of the Global Crisis in Democracy

This piece, written by Adam B. Lerner, covers Christopher Claassen’s, University of Glasgow, new article, In the Mood for Democracy? Democratic Support as Thermostatic Opinion 

What explains the ‘crisis in democracy’ sweeping across the Western world? Why would countries with longstanding democratic traditions elect authoritarian-style leaders, while so many people living under repressive regimes risk their lives fighting for democratic rights?

According to a new article by Christopher Claassen in the American Political Science Review, these shifts are less surprising when considering how democratic mood operates like a thermostat. Just as thermostats work in opposition to changes in the outside temperature, public attitudes often shift in opposition to political events. In the case of public support for democracy, more democratic governance leads to less public support for democracy, while less democratic governance leads to increases in public support. This “thermostatic effect” predicts that citizens will react to democracy becoming ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ by supporting changes in the opposite direction.

Claassen investigates the causes of this effect in depth—he finds that it stems more specifically from increases in ‘liberal’ (anti-majoritarian) democracy and not from increases in electoral democracy (‘rule by the people’). In other words, increases in minority rights, legal equality, checks on executive power and judicial rights are more prone to creating a thermostatic backlash against democracy among citizens, while more opportunities for majorities to dictate government policies do not.

These findings challenge widely held assumptions about public support for democracy that have become increasingly suspect due to international political changes in recent years. For much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many scholars have argued that democratic rights are learned over time. As citizens enjoy the fruits of living in a liberal democracy, including both political rights like free speech and voting rights, this learning hypothesis predicts people will demonstrate even more support democratic governance.

This hypothesis might have explained the durability of democracy across much of the globe in past decades, but it faces a challenge with the ‘crisis in democracy’ created by the rise of populist movements in both established liberal democracies and newer democracies in the post-Soviet and developing world. These populist movements often advocate anti-liberal democratic policies like crackdowns on the free press or the suppression of immigrants’ rights.

To address the prior model’s inadequacies, Claassen drew on a large dataset of survey responses and democratic indicators from 135 countries, taken over 30 years. Because of the size of the dataset and the detail of the questions asked, Claassen was able to not only identify how support for democracy changed in relation to democratic governance, but also what types of democratic measures lead to such changes.

Ultimately, Claassen’s dataset provided little evidence for the learning hypothesis of much previous scholarship. Instead, using an advanced statistical analysis, Claassen demonstrated that the data more closely resembles a thermostatic model, characterized by backlash to changes. This model indicates that citizens in democracies often learn to take their freedoms for granted, while those in countries that are becoming more repressive increase their support for democracy.

While the thermostatic model predicts that citizens facing increased repression will likely support more democratic policies, Claassen recognizes that the image it paints of citizens is not particularly flattering. Indeed, he argues that democratic citizens may be “more mercurial and intolerant” than previous scholarship would assume. Unfortunately, Claassen finds that democratic norms might not encourage people to naturally become more tolerant over time.

This article is a powerful contribution to political science’s understanding of support for democracy across the globe, providing an elegant model that will resonate with scholars, policymakers and pundits. It helps explain why so many citizens of liberal democracies have demonstrated diminished support for the free press and the rights of immigrants, while pro-democracy protest movements in places like Hong Kong retain their energy and enthusiasm. Further, it provides an explanation for changes sweeping across the globe that will likely continue to reverberate across the international system.