What Democracy do Ethno-Populist Supporters Want?

By Kate Gold

Protesters carry Polish flags and National Radical Camp flags during a rally, organized by far-right, nationalist groups, to mark 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Poland November 11, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Adam Stepien via REUTERS

On April 24, 2023 Tsveta Petrova, Lecturer in Political Science at Columbia University, visited Miami University as part of the spring colloquium series on populism in Eastern Europe sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. In her lecture, “What Democracy do Ethno-Populist Supporters Want?”, Petrova utilized experimental evidence to explain why populist parties that undermine democratic institutions continue to receive popular support. Petrova put forth three hypotheses that explain the voting behavior of populist supporters by describing their stance on democracy.

The first hypothesis asserts that populist supporters have an affinity for a majoritarian brand of democracy, meaning populist supporters would view policies undermining liberal democratic institutions not as anti-democratic, but as a way to enhance the power of the majority. The second hypothesis is less complex and posits that, rather than favoring a certain type of democracy, populist supporters do not favor democracy at all and instead prefer authoritarian politics. The last hypothesis is at odds with the popular perception of populism as an exclusionary force, and states that populist supporters have a positive inclination toward pluralist democracy, but do not believe the current political system effectively includes all citizens. These populist supporters would therefore view populism as a way to make a democratic system more inclusive.

To test these hypotheses, Petrova assembled a group of non-populist and populist Polish voters and presented them with fictional political candidates who were associated with statements relating to pluralism, compromise, the role of political opposition, and other aspects of governance. The participants were then asked to rank these candidates.

Participants who had identified ahead of time as supporters of Poland’s Law and Order Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) simultaneously demonstrated an aversion to pluralistic statements and a strong affinity toward statements espousing a more majoritarian form of democracy, proving the first hypothesis and disproving the third. Populist supporters are not adverse to democracy, per-se, but rather adverse to pluralist democracy. This lack of aversion toward democracy on the whole was further demonstrated by populist supporters’ attitudes toward candidates associated with authoritarian statements. While populist voters were less likely to reject these candidates than non-populist voters, they still generally rejected them, disproving Petrova’s second hypothesis.

Supporters of Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president and Law & Justice (Pis) candidate, wave Polish national flags as exit polls are announced near Pultusk Castle in Pultusk, Poland, on July 12, 2020. Photographer: Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg

While Petrova’s experiment does illuminate populist supporters’ attitudes towards democracy, it does not entirely capture what is likely an important reason populist supporters continue to support politicians that undermine democracy: practicality. It may be tempting to explain political behavior as a function of ideological disposition, but Przemysław Sadura and Sławomir Sierakowski’s study “Political Cynicism” makes it clear that, oftentimes, those who support certain politicians and parties do not necessarily do so for ideological reasons. PiS supporters may not be adhering to deeply held beliefs about majoritarian democracy when they cast their votes, and may instead be, in the words of one PiS voter, “looking out for [their] own interests.” As stated by Sadura and Sierakowski, “it is not primarily their worldview that attracts [PiS supporters] to PiS.” Petrova’s experiment therefore only partially answers the question she put forth at the beginning of the lecture, that is, why populist supporters continue to vote for politicians that enact undemocratic policies. We might also add pure political cynicism as an answer to her question.

Kate Gold is a sophomore majoring in Political Science

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