Michael Becher on an IE University's contribution to the first annual CIVICA political behaviour and institutions conference


What is the outlook for democracy in the twenty-first century? Teams from across CIVICA universities explore the challenges for democracies and the opportunities for democratic deepening. 

To exchange ideas and foster collaborations in this important area of research, the first annual CIVICA political behaviour and institutions conference will be held at the Hertie School in Berlin on the 25th and the 26th of May. The two-day conference can be expected to feature cutting-edge work from all ten universities participating in CIVICA. 

I will be presenting work from a collaborative research project on how ordinary people evaluate political leaders and democracy as a whole during hard times. Over a little bit more than a decade, many countries were exposed to multiple crises. People experienced the financial crisis and great recession triggered in 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in the Ukraine, and rapidly rising costs of living. We want to better understand how people’s views about democratic politics respond to government performance in hard times. 

When people observe that their elected leaders are comparatively bad at addressing a crisis that puts their lives and livelihoods at risk, do they also blame how democracy works in their country? If they do, do they start supporting alternative, non-democratic regime types? Based on a survey experiment conducted in 12 countries and covering 22,500 respondents during the Covid-19 pandemic, we provide new answers to these enduring questions. (At the conference, I will present an updated version of our NBER working paper.) Analyzing the experimental data, we find that people do not blame leaders and democracy across the board. They are responsive to information on governance outcomes. First, in the experiment dissatisfaction with the health and economic response to the pandemic spurred dissatisfaction with the government. Second, dissatisfaction with the government in turn increased dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy in their country. Third, the good news is that dissatisfaction with government performance does not necessarily cause people to prefer non-democratic alternatives, such as rule by a strongman unconstrained by parliament or military rule. 

Our interpretation of the results from the experiment is that that comparatively bad government performance has spurred internal critiques of democracy. While this may lead to a deepening of democracy through reform, we also note that the main domestic criticism of how democracy functions in the twenty-first century is framed within the game of democratic politics. Thus, populists present themselves as saviors of true democracy, even if they end up undermining it. So it matters that bad performance increases the pool of dissatisfied citizens. 

The paper to be presented at the CIVICA conference is part of a larger project on the challenges faced by democracies and possible solutions.  Other parts look at the responsiveness of elected representatives and the promise and perils of extending direct democracy.  

Written by Michael Becher (IE University). 

Photo credits: Kyle Glenn (unsplash).