Larry Bartels Says Democracy Erodes from the Top

Larry Bartels

Larry Bartels is the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University and a Co-Director for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. His new book is called Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe.

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Democracy is a much more complicated thing than we often give it credit for and certainly speaking dichotomously about democracy being in crisis or not is an oversimplification.

Larry Bartels

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:34
  • A Crisis of Democracy? 3:02
  • Populism 23:20
  • Political Restraint – 37:49
  • What is Democracy? 44:51

Podcast Transcript

A few years ago Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa wrote a short piece in the Journal of Democracy called “The Democratic Disconnect.” They argued a growing number of people had become disillusioned with democracy itself. It sparked a lot of conversations, because it had some serious implications. If more and more people no longer cared for democracy, then people would not stand up to elites during episodes of democratic backsliding. Worse yet they may even look for leaders who challenged democratic institutions and norms. 

In many ways this is an ongoing debate among academics and concerned citizens. Does democratic backsliding arise out of popular dissatisfaction with democracy or ambitious political leaders? Larry Bartels argues it begins with political leaders. Larry is the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University and a Co-Director for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. His new book is called Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe.

Our conversation explores some common themes from the role of political elites to democratic backsliding and populism. You’ll likely find Larry comes to different conclusions than some of the past guests. For my part, I find it refreshing to hear different perspectives especially when they challenge our common assumptions. 

Now, if you like this podcast, consider becoming a supporter at Patreon or a premium subscriber on Apple Podcasts. For as little as $5/month you can gain access to additional bonus content. Lately, I’ve begun to include some interesting interviews that are only available for Patrons and premium subscribers. If you have questions about the podcast, please email me at But for now… This is my conversation with Larry Bartels…


Larry Bartels, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Larry Bartels

Hi, good to be with you.


Larry, I’ve really enjoyed your book, Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe. It’s a bit different than a lot of the books that I’ve discussed on the podcast, because a lot of the other books involve authors who almost take it for granted that democracy is in crisis. But in the book, you write, “Perceived crises of democracy are hardly rare.” It’s a very different take. It’s a different implication. Do you believe that there is a genuine crisis of democracy at the moment?

Larry Bartels

I guess I would say that it’s important to look at specific circumstances in different places. My broadest overall take is that democracy is a much more complicated thing than we often give it credit for and certainly speaking dichotomously about democracy being in crisis or not is an oversimplification. Any democracy at any point in time is likely to be doing better or worse on each of a variety of different dimensions that are important to people. I think one of the real problems we have in working in this field is that our theories of democracy are not very rich in terms of understanding how those different dimensions fit together or which ones are most important.

So, people have a tendency to focus on specific aspects of democracy that are either relatively easy to measure or that make people whose politics they dislike look bad. It’s hard to integrate from that any overall sense of how well any particular democracy is doing. One of the things that I focused on in my previous research is the responsiveness of political systems to the preferences of citizens and especially disparities in responsiveness to the preferences of different kinds of citizens. By that measure, every democracy that we’ve studied is in very bad shape. But from other perspectives that’s less true. In the current environment,

I think there are some places where there’s significant risk of democratic backsliding. I think the US is probably one of those. I think most of Europe, which is what I was writing about in this book, probably is not. There are frictions and tensions of the sort that exist in almost all democratic societies, but I don’t think in most of Europe there’s a significant risk of substantial democratic backsliding, much less a complete breakdown of democracy.


One of the concerns people have had when they think about things like a crisis of democracy, whether it be in the United States, whether it be in Europe, is the idea that citizens are less satisfied with democracy today than they have been in the past. What’s your experience? Do you think citizens are just as satisfied with democracy or less satisfied with democracy today?

Larry Bartels

Well, I think that’s one of those things that looks relatively easy to measure on its face, but turns out to be quite complicated. There have been big cross-national surveys that have asked people in various ways about democracy as an abstract good, and the results are very peculiar. If you look, for example, across national surveys, people in China not only look similar to people in the US in terms of the importance that they attach to democracy, but also in terms of how well they think their own country is being democratically governed. They obviously have a very different notion of democracy in mind than we do in the US, but even looking across the advanced democracies of Europe, you see some very different conceptions about what democracy means.

If you ask questions about specific aspects of democracy that are important, for example, people in Germany and Spain attach a lot of importance to unemployment benefits. But that’s not something that people naturally associate with democracy. Certainly not as a fundamental characteristic of democracy in the US. But looking at responses to a broad question about how satisfied people are with their own democratic systems and how they’re functioning, I was surprised to find in Europe that there’s really been very little change in overall levels of satisfaction over the last couple of decades. People are generally kind of middling in their level of satisfaction with democracy overall and that’s changed very little across most of Europe over this period.


What factors were in your mind when you thought maybe there might be a change? Like what was in the back of your mind that you thought would impact people’s feelings and sentiments towards democracy?

Larry Bartels

Well, there’s been a lot of public discourse about a crisis of democracy, especially in Europe and especially in the wake of the economic crisis that started in the US in 2007-2008, and then spread to much of the world. But in Europe, it took the form of the Euro crisis, which compounded underlying economic problems with threats to the budgets of European nations. Their sovereign debt situations were in some cases very bad and some countries experienced really significant economic declines over a period of years. A lot of the public discourse suggested that that economic crisis was connected to or causing a political crisis that was maybe as serious as any that we’ve seen in the developed world since the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

So, I started to look at the survey data, imagining that there would be all kinds of danger signs of democratic systems all over Europe in the wake of the Euro crisis. That simply turned out not to be true over and over again. I found that the kinds of attitudes that people imagined were really not shifting very much at all.


What about immigration? Because I hear a lot about an immigration crisis in Europe, although a lot of the widespread waves of immigration have kind of slowed down, if not come to a pause. But even in some governments, like Italy for instance just elected a far-right government that is taking a very strong stand on immigration. Poland has traditionally taken a very hard line on immigration. Definitely Hungary. What about the immigration issue? Because it seems like people have very strong opinions of immigration and tie it back to their feelings about democracy as well.

Larry Bartels

There’s been a lot of concern over a long period of time about the impact of increasing immigration into Europe. There’s a lot of variation across countries in how much immigration they’ve experienced over this period and surprisingly not any very strong relationships between the extent of immigration and the attitudes of natives about immigrants and about letting more immigrants into their country. The general impression I think from the media is that there’s a huge wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in a lot of these countries, but for the most part, it actually turns out that public attitudes toward immigration have become more favorable over the last 20 years rather than more hostile.

That is mostly to do with a gradual generational shift because the people tend to be most opposed to immigration, most concerned about the impact of immigrants on their societies tend to be older people and they’re gradually being replaced by younger people who have more relaxed attitudes about immigration. So, if you look overall, you see that support for immigration has actually increased in most places in Europe. There is still a lot of variation. There are some countries where attitudes are more unfavorable. Italy is one example and right-wing politicians have attempted to exploit those feelings in order to win office.

Hungary is a more complicated situation because it turns out that attitudes about immigration really weren’t very connected to voting behavior. In Hungary Orbán and Fidesz were first elected in 2010 and began a process of democratic backsliding. But it was only after he was in office and trying to maintain his hold that Orbán turned to really harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and a strong stand in the wake of the refugee crisis in 2015 and we see a pattern in which increasingly anti-immigrant sentiments were connected with support for Orbán and with Fidesz. But that wasn’t the case when they first took power.


So, what really shocked me as I read through your book was that a lot of the things that we think of as problems for democracy or even just problems in terms of public sentiment seem to be nothing new and oftentimes it’s even things that are improving. In fact, in the book you write, “If anything, there has been a very slight increase in satisfaction with democracy among younger cohorts compared to their elders.” Were you surprised to find that there wasn’t much change or there wasn’t much of a shift and if anything, things were actually becoming more positive over time?

Larry Bartels

I was. I haven’t spent a lot of time in my career focusing on public opinion in Europe and so much of my impression about what was going on there was based on popular discourse and the rhetoric that you read in the newspapers about what’s going on in these places. So, I’ve become increasingly, as I’ve looked at the data, to think that those views about what’s happening are often unreliable because journalists have very short attention spans and are often focused on what’s happening that looks alarming and try to see something new in every trend in the data. If you look at the data more broadly and more systematically, I think it’s hard to support a lot of the alarmist views that have been propounded.


So, if citizens aren’t less satisfied with democracy than they were in the past and yet we are seeing cracks in democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary and a few others at different moments. Should we be expecting citizens to step up and defend democracy in those situations?

Larry Bartels

Well, what we’ve observed in those places is that the backsliding in terms of constraining democratic institutions and checks and balances and free media have been propounded overwhelmingly by political elites based on their own preferences and especially their desires to entrench themselves in power. That’s sometimes viewed as alarming, but in the broad history of democracy is actually a pretty common thing. Jessica Trounstine has a terrific book on political monopolies looking at American cities over the course of the late 19th and 20th century. We think of the urban bosses who entrenched themselves in power through all kinds of chicanery and graft and political pressure.

She tells that story very well, but she also points out that all of those people in one way or another were eventually forced out of power, often replaced by what were billed as reformist coalitions, which then attempted to entrench themselves in power in often different and maybe more subtle ways. But the tendency of political elites to try to entrench themselves is not at all rare. So, in Hungary, for example, what you saw was a pretty conventional conservative opposition party. The incumbent party had been basically decimated by a huge corruption scandal and so it was pretty obvious that they were going to get voted out and Fidesz was going to win the election. In 2010, Orbán did not campaign as an authoritarian and people were not voting for authoritarianism.

They were voting for what seemed to be a plausible alternative to a failed incumbent government. It was after he managed to get elected and given the quirks of the Hungarian electoral system managed to turn a 53% popular vote margin into a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and had unified control of his party that he was able to push through constitutional changes and changes in the judicial system and to increasingly pressure the independent media and crackdown on democracy insignificant ways. But that was really elite driven rather than a mass driven set of phenomena. Then after the fact, there was some opposition from voters in Hungary, but there was also a lot of support for Orbán and what he was doing.

Democratic theorists might think that’s disappointing that people didn’t prioritize abstract democratic values or democratic procedures over other values. But I think that’s something that’s quite consistently true of democratic systems as well that people are more likely to attach value to what’s going on in their day-to-day lives and their political identities and values rather than to abstract notions of democratic fairness. There have been a variety of studies in the US going back over half a century that suggest that if you ask Americans about norms of democracy, they’re supportive. But as soon as they perceive those norms are coming into conflict with their own political values, they’re unlikely to really make political sacrifices in support of democracy.

If you look at complete breakdowns of democratic systems, as Nancy Bermeo did in a terrific book focusing on Europe and Latin America in the 20th century, one of the most consistent general findings there is that citizens did not precipitate the downfall of democracy in these places. They weren’t generally voting for authoritarian parties to take control, but once authoritarians did take control they were passive in their responses and often at least tacitly supportive of these shifts in regimes if things seemed to be going well economically and socially and politically as they were in Hungary after Orbán took power.


Yeah, Milan Svolik has done studies that show exactly what you describe. He studied people in Venezuela where you ask people if you would support a candidate and you describe that candidate as somebody who supports their views, but then also adds in the fact that they’re anti-democratic. People who claim to purport democratic values, even on this survey that has no binding consequences, find it hard to vote against their ideological preferences, especially when they’re more polarized and farther on the extremes. That’s something that he studied in Venezuela and he’s applied that in the United States. But what strikes me in Hungary, in particular, is the fact that the opposition has not coalesced into a strong single party to take on Fidesz.

I mean, after the collapse of the Socialists, we’ve seen a real fragmentation of the opposition on both flanks of Fidesz. Both Jobbik on the right and we see a wide fragmentation on the left. They’ve tried to coalesce in the last election, but it’s just been very difficult for them to be able to put together a strong message and a strong vision. There’s no elite message. There’s nothing for people to vote for. It seems like the message so far has been just to vote against Orbán and based on how they did in 2022 that just didn’t work very well.

Larry Bartels

I think there was a lot of hope in the most recent election that the opposition would be able to coalesce and there was talk about the popularity of the government eroding over time. The popularity of most incumbent governments erodes over time and so sooner or later they’ll erode to the point where they do get thrown out. It hasn’t happened yet and it’s going to be slower to happen given the success that the government has had in entrenching itself in power and altering the electoral rules to its own advantage. So, if there was a completely free and fair election in Hungary, it’s possible that they would already be voted out of office. Even with the advantages that they have, they will eventually be voted out of office.

But one of the things that’s delayed that process is that there’s been a pretty dramatic change in people’s perceptions of how things are going in Hungary. If you look at the survey data from before Fidesz took power in 2010 and more recent surveys, the most recent one that I’ve seen is from 2019 with huge improvements in people’s satisfaction with the economy, increased trust in politicians, increases in their satisfaction with government services and the overall quality of their lives, and ironically, significant increases in their satisfaction with how democracy is working even as outsiders catalog all the ways in which the incumbent regime has eroded the institutions of democracy in Hungary.


It seems to me that one of the great ironies of democracy is when you have a truly free and open media that can criticize both sides of the aisle, it allows citizens to really wonder and question leaders from every direction and can engender distrust. Whereas if you have strong censorship the way that you do in Hungary, there’s only one view that’s being discussed. People hear only one side of the story.

I don’t want to say long term, but in the short term sometimes you can engender stronger trust and stronger support for that direction. Now obviously in the case of the Soviet Union, we saw what happens over the long term is that people lose faith in those media reports and those institutions and the propaganda. But Hungary hasn’t been in power for that long, so it seems to be engendering support for the regime in the short run.

Larry Bartels

There’s a long scholarly literature on political trust. One of the things that’s odd about it is that it’s focused so much on the causes of shifts in levels of trust in particular times and places and not very much on the political consequences of higher or lower levels of political trust. I think it’s not clear at all what the implications of having more or less trust in government actually are. The other thing that’s a little bit odd about it from the standpoint of democratic theory is that we really don’t have any good way of specifying what a satisfactory or ideal level of trust in the government would be. Presumably, if trust is very low, that’s a bad sign for democracy. But if it’s very high, that may be a bad sign for democracy as well.


So, Hungary is an example of what many call a populist government. And we see populism arising all throughout the world. We saw it arise in the United States through Donald Trump. We see it emerging throughout Europe in the case of Marine Le Pen, in the case of the AfD within Germany, and many different countries. In the book, you write, “What the purveyors of the notion of a populist explosion overlook is that there are always dissatisfied citizens in democracies and thus there is always space for populists to appeal to the people.”

I’m not sure if that gives me comfort that people aren’t more populist today than they were in the past or if it worries me because there’s this latent support for populism that always exists that has just been untapped until this moment. Where do you think the populist sentiment that exists, that has always kind of been there on the margins, where do you think it comes from?

Larry Bartels

Well, one of the things that I think makes this kind of conversation difficult is that people mean very different things by populism. They point to very different examples and tend to lump them together as illustrations of an overall phenomenon when in some ways they bear family resemblances and in other ways not. What I did in my analysis was to look at 16 different examples of what have commonly been called right-wing populist parties in different parts of Europe and to try to understand what the common elements of support for those parties were. The two most important are conservative ideology on just a regular left-right scale and anti-immigrant sentiments. But then there are also some others that play a supporting role in lots of places such as opposition to European integration, distrust of politicians, in some cases economic dissatisfaction and so on.

If you look at those kinds of attitudes, they vary some from place to place and they vary a little bit over time in particular places. But overall, across Europe, there really hasn’t been any change in two decades in the overall level of right-wing populist sentiment. So, where you see instances of particular right-wing populist parties that have launched themselves successfully and been able to win significant parliamentary support in some places, my interpretation is what’s happened is that political entrepreneurs have become more successful in exploiting existing sentiment rather than in building or increasing right-wing populist sentiment. Indeed, in a lot of places where right-wing populist parties have flourished, you actually observe declines in the extent of right-wing populist sentiment in the society as a whole.

So, I think it’s important not to make the mistake that many electoral analysts make when they look at the results of elections in particular places, first of all, to interpret them as indications of the underlying sentiment in those places and especially to think of electoral shifts as reflecting shifts in underlying public opinion. Secondly, to extrapolate from those places to lots of other places and imagine that these shifts in particular countries that often have to do with the particular circumstances, the performance of incumbent parties, the particular coalitions that are formed, the standing of individual political leaders and so on are somehow indicative of this mythical continent-wide or global movement toward populism.


At the same time, as this sentiment has always existed, even if it’s not as widespread as we sometimes make it out to be, there is still a latent support that just wasn’t tapped into in the past before maybe the AfD in Germany or some of the other parties like maybe Berlusconi in Italy. Why haven’t politicians exploited this populist sentiment earlier?

Larry Bartels

Well, the particular tensions and dissatisfactions that are reflected in this right-wing populist sentiment are more salient in some places than in others. If you think about late 20th century politics in Europe or in the US for that matter, they were largely focused around different kinds of questions that tapped into different bases of public opinion and insofar as there were social frictions having to do with things like race and immigration, they were often consciously submerged by political elites who had the leeway to organize political conflict around other issues rather than those. I think that kind of elite discipline has broken down.

In some ways our political systems are more open to entrepreneurs to try to exploit right-wing populist sentiment that works in different ways in different places. In the US it’s mostly within the primary competition. The main ways in which these factions and splinter groups can influence political parties is by having effects on who gets nominated. In multi-party systems, it’s more often that they form parties that are specifically oriented to appeal to these kinds of people and attract some support eventually, usually enough to get some representation in Parliament. Then the question is whether they can translate that support into a broader influence in the political process and on policymaking.

Often even in places where right-wing populist parties have gained a foothold, they haven’t really been very influential because mainstream parties and conventional political leaders have conspired to exclude them from political power, kept them out of coalitions and so on. But that’s another norm of democracy that has eroded or broken down recently in some places. We see cases like Sweden where the Swedish Democrats who had been effectively isolated from power now are in the government and having some political influence that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But again, I think the important shifts there are not in public opinion, but in the norms or the adherence to norms of political elites.


What about Great Britain? Because UKIP is an example of a populist party that made a lot of noise, but didn’t have a lot of success in parliamentary elections. However, it did have a tremendous amount of success in terms of setting the political agenda and influencing the Conservative Party and many have seen Boris Johnson, even though he was never affiliated with UKIP, he was only affiliated with the Conservatives, as being a populist politician in shaping the Conservative Party into a populist party for a time. I mean, do the mainstream parties shift their approach and their strategies based around some of those more extreme, far-right populist parties?

Larry Bartels

Absolutely, even when UKIP was at its height, most of the people in Britain with right-wing populist sentiments were voting conservative rather than voting for UKIP. That’s in large part a function of the incentives that are created by the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain. But UKIP got a lot of attention and got media coverage that was out of proportion to its popular support and generated a lot of concern among conservative politicians that they had to take steps in order to avoid the erosion of support on their flank to UKIP. In particular, the Prime Minister kind of bungled into promising that if the Conservatives won the election, they would allow a referendum on staying in the European Union.

I think that was a calculation that was part of this effort to shore up the Conservative Party’s support and render UKIP less politically relevant, less tempting to Tori’s supporters, but backfired and produced what I think was from the point of view of policy a kind of debacle that even a lot of Conservatives came to regret eventually.


But obviously the greatest policy success of UKIP would be considered the Brexit referendum and the passage of that. However, even Boris Johnson’s ascension that many don’t see as likely if Brexit doesn’t pass is more than just a support for Brexit. I mean, he followed that kind of populist playbook of challenging many of the norms of democracy and challenging many of the standards. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why they eventually removed him from power, which I guess in some ways is a demonstration of how the political system fights back against those extreme ends of populism. But at the same time, he was in office for quite a few years before that happened.

Larry Bartels

I think that was partly a function, again, of overstating or misperceiving the underlying support for that, I want to say ideology, but maybe it’s more accurate to say set of impulses or political tendencies. When Brexit passed party leaders to varying degrees, but overall, pretty enthusiastically, embraced this new identity for the Conservative Party and accepted the idea that the Conservative Party would be not only a Brexit party, but a populist party in other ways such as less welcoming to immigrants, for example. But that happened at a point when actual right-wing populist sentiment in Britain was actually declining. Almost immediately after Brexit was passed, a lot of the air went out of the frustrations about the European Union and immigration and overall opinion in Britain actually became less welcoming to right-wing populism.

But I think Conservative Party leaders misread the political climate and thought that they had to go further than they did in terms of accommodating themselves to that set of ideas and that style of political leadership. I think that probably produced more support for Johnson and kept him in power longer than would’ve been the case otherwise.


We’ve mentioned Italy very briefly, while we’re on the subject of populism I’d like to get your thoughts on Italy because I think it’s such a bizarre case at the moment. The Italians have just elected a right-wing populist government with the Brothers of Italy in the lead. They’re oftentimes described as a neo-fascist political party. But at the same time, the Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, surprised people by being a fairly competent leader. She hasn’t done anything that’s challenged democratic norms that I’m aware of. How do you interpret the situation of what’s happening right now in Italy with their current government?

Larry Bartels

Well, it’s a complicated political system. Maybe the most important thing to know about it is given the fracturing of support across a range of parties and the kind of constant replacing of one party with another, it’s a very fluid political system, being in a governing coalition and being the head of a governing coalition doesn’t in itself provide a great deal of power to actually make policy. So, I said the downside of a multi-party system was that it’s easier for these right-wing populist leaders to get a foothold and get representation in parliament. The other side of that coin is that in order to be powerful within the government, they have to make coalitions.

This is an example in which although there’s a good deal of support for right wing populism in Italy, it’s certainly not majority support. The governing coalition includes a variety of conservative parties, some of which are pretty populist. Meloni rose to power largely due to the collapse of support for a different right-wing populist party that had been in government previously. She’s also dependent on the support of a more conventional conservative party and so I think her coalition partners constrained some of what she might otherwise be able to do in terms of making policy. It’s not a situation like Hungary where Fidesz comes in and can rearrange the constitution to its liking.

The other important factor here is I think there’s a kind of recognition that in order to maintain support, especially in such a fluid political system, it’s going to be necessary to produce the kinds of improvements in day-to-day life that I claimed were important in keeping Fidesz in power in Hungary. The way to do that in Italy is to try to manage the economy competently and especially to maintain sufficiently good relationships with the European Union to keep EU funds flowing into Italy. I think that’s been a big priority. If that’s successful in convincing ordinary Italians that life is improving, then I think they’ll continue to support the government regardless of its shady fascist background and the concerns that some people might otherwise have about the bad things that it could get up to if it was unconstrained in power.


So, what you’re describing are reasons why leaders will show restraint. The reasons why leaders do not follow their darkest impulses necessarily and maintain democratic norms, even if a part of them wishes that they didn’t have to. So why don’t we dig deeper into this idea? Your book is titled Democracy Erodes from the Top, which means it begins with the elites. It begins with leaders. Why do elites, why do leaders show restraint when they’re in power, when democracy is not eroding?

Larry Bartels

Well, I think that’s a mysterious question and we don’t have very good answers to it. I think it has to do in part with the perception that there will be some important backlash against violations of democratic norms. Often when particular politicians do choose to violate norms, we see that those backlash constraints are much less powerful than we’ve imagined them to be. I think that’s an important part of the story of US politics over the last two decades, but certainly under President Trump who during his campaign and then in office violated democratic norms left and right. Observers kept imagining that any day now there would be a huge backlash and that he would suffer politically from doing that. For the most part that didn’t happen.

So, I think part of it is a kind of mythical belief in the reality of constraints that are more mythical than real in political terms. I think part of it has to do with the socialization of political leaders and their own values. I’ve said that they often have more leeway than democratic theory imagines to make decisions and do what they want to do based on their own values. They’re less constrained by electoral majorities and electoral pressures than we sometimes imagine. But on the other hand, that means that they can take anti-democratic actions in cases where we wish they wouldn’t. It also means sometimes that they do make choices to abide by democratic norms, even when they’re short run political incentives might have led them in the opposite direction.


So, do you think that democracy is typically preserved because of the good graces then of our political leaders and that our political leaders just genuinely believe in democracy and reinforce it? Or do you think that they really are constrained by either their ideas that there would be a backlash or constrained by actual circumstances like you described in Italy? That there are circumstances that constrain the Italian state based on relationships with other countries and the European Union and things beyond just elections. Is it those physical constraints that exist or is it normative reasons why politicians typically support democracy?

Larry Bartels

I want to say that I think both are important in that their relative importance varies with circumstances and that as political scientists we’re not very good at specifying the importance of these various factors or understanding why they vary from time to time or from place to place. But none of those things has fundamentally to do with what most common understandings of democracy emphasize most which is public opinion and the values of ordinary citizens and the way they make political choices.


Now, I know that this is outside the book and it’s outside the region that you’re talking about because we’re talking about Europe, but it’s hard for me to ignore what’s happening right now in Israel. Because Netanyahu had just been looking to pass some judicial reforms, and many people, including President Biden, felt that they were challenging Israeli democracy. Now, he has recently pulled back on those reforms. But it was largely because of people who got involved and went out to protest in the streets. They were looking at doing a general strike. I just wonder whether that’s an example that challenges your ideas about how much influence elites have because it was regular citizens out of power that defended democracy or if you think it confirms your ideas because democracy did begin to erode from the top, from the coalition, from the government itself?

Larry Bartels

I think insofar as there has been erosion, it has been from the top. I think another aspect of this situation that jives with what I saw and wrote about in Europe is the variety of understandings of democracy that are in play and how they matter. So, Netanyahu defended these changes on the grounds that they were going to make the country more democratic by limiting, constraining the power of this anti-democratic judicial system. But it is at least for the moment a kind of counter example in the sense that I think popular pressure has been important in getting him to back down at least for the moment from some of what he intended to do. Whether that will turn out to be true in the long run obviously remains to be seen. I don’t have a good sense of that.

At the very end of my book, I mentioned Arthur Bentley, who’s one of my favorite political analysts writing more than a century ago, to emphasize the extent to which the governmental process is a balancing of pressures and that political leaders are exerting pressures on each other and making policy. But they’re also trying to manage the pressures within society and how those pressures get manifested varies a lot depending upon circumstances and political institutions and political culture. Public opinion is a convenient barometer of the pressures he says, but not always a very accurate one. Sometimes it can be misleading about the actual strength of pressures on one side or another of a political question. But it’s convenient in the sense that it doesn’t require violence in order to manifest itself.

Then there are other sorts of pressures ranging from protesting at a kind of moderate level to political violence at an extreme level in which people try to pursue their values by putting pressure on the government or on other political actors and to the extent to which that happens. Democracy is likely to be bumpier than the kind of neat theoretical picture of citizens conveying their preferences through elections leads us to believe.


The idea of citizens conveying their preferences and representatives, putting those preferences into policies as a definition of democracy always comes across as very problematic for me because a country like China can claim that they are putting into effect the policies that people want just without holding elections and without bothering with the electoral process and doing it very effectively. I mean, you can imagine a benevolent dictator in theory putting policies that people want into practice without actually consulting the people themselves or just conducting public opinion polls or just intuiting what people actually want. That’s not democracy. That’s obviously dictatorship.

So, it comes back to me as a question for you as to what you think democracy is, because for me, democracy doesn’t necessarily involve outcomes. It must involve some level of process. In fact, a heavy level of process is involved in what we think about democracy. But for you, what is it that you think of when you think of democracy?

Larry Bartels

I’ve been thinking about this question for decades now, and I don’t know that my answer is getting any clearer or that I’m any more confident. Maybe I’m less confident than I used to be about that. I think the notion that people’s preferences are being translated into policy in any direct sense is an important part of what most people have in mind, and in fact, not a lot of that actually goes on. Maybe in some cases that’s for the better. I don’t think anybody would want in every instance for Democratic majorities to get everything that they want. I would put more emphasis on the idea that political leaders are making policy with the interests of ordinary citizens in mind. You’ve already pointed out ways in which that notion can go badly astray.

So, I would add to that some institutional procedures that make it less likely that they’ll go off the rails in terms of pursuing clearly outrageous notions of what in fact is in citizen’s interest. When Chris Achen and I wrote another book about democracy called Democracy for Realists, it was kind of a pessimistic take about the way the system works, and in the last chapter, we felt like we had to say something about what’s good about democracy in spite of everything in the previous 11 chapters. So, we came up with a not entirely inspiring list of good things about democracy. Even that list has taken some hits in the meantime. The book was published in the spring of 2016.

One of the things we suggested was, at least having Democratic elections makes it easy for people to coordinate on the winner of an election without having a lot of violence and contention about who won the election. That turns out to be mostly true, but not entirely true of the US system. We also said that politicians will be constrained not to violate citizens preferences when those preferences are pretty clear and widespread. The example that we gave is that a president will not strangle a kitten on the White House lawn in front of the television cameras because that’s likely to create all sorts of political problems that he doesn’t want to deal with. Then, I don’t know what it was, a few months later, Trump announced how he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care.

So, that one may have taken something of a hit as well. But I think the general idea that democratic institutions and electoral institutions constrained the ways in which leaders can go off the rails in either pursuing wildly mistaken notions of the public interest or simply trying to entrench themselves in power and feather their own nests is practically important in making societies and governments function somewhat better than they would otherwise.


It still raises the question of accountability. How do we make leaders accountable for their actions? How do we make them accountable so that they don’t erode democracy in the first place? You conclude the book with this line “When they organize and exploit public opinion skillfully for good ends, including the good end of safeguarding democracy itself they deserve our gratitude and respect. When they fail that is a crisis of democracy.” So, how do we hold our leaders accountable so that they don’t fail and they don’t produce a crisis of democracy?

Larry Bartels

Well, I think one of the important lessons of the book is that. We are probably not the primary actors in holding them accountable except in a very vague way that we’re part of the political culture and part of the process of socialization. The formation of expectations and values are probably more directly effective in preventing them from doing stuff that’s undemocratic. I think that’s why there’s a lot at stake in not only the behavior of politicians who violate norms, but also the behavior of politicians who countenance or condone the violation of norms on the part of their political allies. In the book by Nancy Bermeo that I mentioned, she puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of the ability of political leaders to distance themselves from extreme factions and from politicians who are willing to smash the guardrails of democracy.

I think ordinary politicians to a greater or lesser extent face those sorts of dilemmas with some frequency. In so far as we can either hold them accountable or exert moral persuasion on them to behave well in terms of weighing democratic norms more heavily and concrete political values less heavily, I think that’s likely to make the system work effectively. But just as with ordinary citizens, political leaders are balancing their allegiance to democratic norms against their practical political values and their political goals in ways that sometimes safeguard our institutions and sometimes endanger them.


Well, Larry, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to mention the book one more time. It’s called Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and The Challenge of Populism in Europe. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.

Larry Bartels

Thank you. My pleasure.

Key Links

Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe by Larry Bartels

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels

Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Martin Wolf on the Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

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