Elections are relied on too often. They are the key instrument to indicate popular policy preferences. Elections give a mandate for policy change to the winners. Elections are also expected to encourage effective government. An executive who runs government poorly is not expected to hold onto office. Plus, elections are necessary to maintain the integrity and morality of our leadership. Voters are expected to vote out corrupt leaders. And elections are meant as a defense of democracy. Leaders who display autocratic tendencies are expected to lose. Yet voters also make decisions based on candidate personality and likability, personal connections, and a candidate’s biography.
Elections are expected to accomplish many different goals. Unfortunately, those goals may compete and ultimately contradict. An unpublished working paper of Milan Svolik challenges the willingness of voters to use elections to defend democracy in a polarized electorate. The paper focuses on Venezuela. The country has slowly transitioned from a vibrant democracy into an authoritarian dictatorship. The populist President Hugo Chavez extended term limits until his death. His successor Nicholas Maduro won reelection this past year in a widely recognized farce. In response, the leader of the national assembly, Juan Guiado, has declared the presidency vacant until proper elections are held. The constitution allows him to assume the Presidency in the case of a vacancy. His claim has merit. Many countries have already recognized him as the new President including the United States.
But Svolik’s paper is relevant because electorates face contradictory responsibilities. They must communicate policy preferences while defending institutions. When they conflict, voters prefer to focus on political policies. In Venezuela, Juan Guiado makes a competing claim for the presidency. While he claims the election was fraudulent, he also claims the Venezuelan economy has been ruined. This second claim is based on government effectiveness and policy. This secondary claim makes his original claim less effective. If the Venezuelan economy was run effectively, would he have any claim at all? This is not an abstract question. The success of the Chinese economy continues to legitimize the rule of the Communist Party.
Polarization trumps democratic values. This is Svolik’s insight. Voters value policy more than process. This is the great danger for democracy. American voters saw this firsthand during the 2016 election. Trump’s unwillingness to say he would accept an unfavorable outcome was a red flag for the democratic process. Close elections are messy. The law has never been enough for the preservation of democracy. It depends on fundamental democratic norms like the acceptance of electoral loss. But this puts the responsibility on democratic leaders and elites.
But Svolik does not focus on political elites and leaders. He tested his theories through surveys of Venezuelan voters and then analyzed his results through rigorous statistical tests. He found “a significant fraction of ordinary Venezuelans are willing to trade off democratic principles for their partisan interests.” This finding is compounded when we consider the surveys of the Pew Research Center. They found 40% of the political left supported autocratic rule in Venezuela. This finding contrasts with the traditional support from the political right. It seems a many (maybe most) voters value political policies over the democratic process. It is time to shift the responsibility to the electorate. Citizens have an obligation and a duty to preserve democracy. It is wrong to lay the entire blame on the leaders when the people select them. This is the Democracy Paradox.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com