The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This explains why Venezuelans reelect leaders who dismantle democracy

A man throws a molotov cocktail during clashes with police at eastern Caracas on Saturday. (Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

On Friday, the Venezuelan government, run by the party of the leftist populist Hugo Chávez, banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years. The ban follows a ruling a few days ago by the Venezuelan Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly, run by the opposition, of its legislative powers. The court withdrew that decision after a wave of protests, criticisms from within the regime and pressure by the Organization of American States.

Venezuela was once Latin America’s longest-lived democracy. The current crisis comes after Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have spent nearly two decades working to dismantle its checks and balances. Why?

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The events in Venezuela are part of a worrisome, worldwide trend that I examine in a recent working paper: Elected incumbents gradually subverting democracy. In the past 15 years, Vladimir Putin has turned Russia’s nascent democracy into a one-man show. Turkey’s constitutional referendum, coming up on April 16, may allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to amass greater executive powers at the expense of Turkish democracy. And many observers of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency worry that a similar, if more subtle process, is beginning in the United States.

We’ve seen elected incumbents subvert democracy before. Here is what’s new: It is becoming the main way democracies break down today. Puzzlingly, many illiberal incumbents, including Chávez, Erdogan and Trump, enjoy or used to enjoy significant and genuine popular support. How come large numbers of ordinary people — who presumably value democracy — simultaneously support illiberal incumbents?

My analysis of Venezuela points to one answer: political polarization. In politically polarized societies, most voters have a strong preference for their favorite candidate or party, often to the point of detesting those at the other political extreme. In Venezuela, for instance, more voters identify at the extreme left or right than in the middle.

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An illiberal incumbent can present supporters with a Faustian choice: Choose me and my appealing platform, or choose someone whose democratic credentials you may like but whose policies you despise. In Venezuela — and potentially in other sharply polarized electorates — a significant fraction of the incumbent’s supporters are willing to sacrifice fair, democratic competition in favor of an incumbent who champions their interests.

How I did my research

To evaluate this hypothesis, I designed an experiment that examines whether even democratically-minded voters may be willing to trade off democratic principles for their partisan allegiances when confronted with a choice that pits the two against each other.

As part of a nationally representative survey of Venezuelan voters conducted in fall 2016, I asked respondents to choose between two candidates whose characteristics varied along several dimensions. All but two were feints to conceal my main interest: Were voters willing to accept undemocratic political reforms in exchange for economic policies that cater to their interests?

In one version of this experiment, for instance, respondents were asked to choose between a candidate who proposed to maintain the current, heavily partisan composition of the Venezuelan Electoral Commission and Supreme Court and one who would reform these institutions to be politically impartial. To be sure, some voters did punish the illiberal candidate — regardless of his randomly assigned economic platform.

Crucially, however, such pro-democratic voters were almost exclusively ideological moderates who could “afford” to put their concerns about democracy ahead of their economic interests. One-third of Venezuelans overall, and a majority of those on the left, were willing to support an undemocratic incumbent as long as he proposed economic policies that catered to their interests.

What are the implications for other polarized democracies?

My finding that a significant fraction of ordinary Venezuelans are willing to trade off democratic principles for their partisan, especially economic interests may understate the implications of this phenomenon for how vulnerable polarized democracies are to being subverted by elected incumbents.

After all, voting against an anti-democratic candidate when doing so goes against your own party is one of the least costly forms of opposition to authoritarianism. Nonetheless, a significant number of respondents in my experiment were not even willing to go so far as to say that they would do so.

If they are unwilling to vote against an anti-democratic candidate in a hypothetical survey scenario, they are probably not going to take the many crucial but much riskier steps to resist authoritarianism — such as protest or civil disobedience. Voters in polarized societies may become pro- or anti-Chávez, Erdogan or Trump first — and democrats only second.

Milan Svolik is an associate professor of political science at Yale University and the author of “The Politics of Authoritarian Rule” (Cambridge University Press, 2012)