Dispatch #22: Democratic Backsliding

In this dispatch we will look at some recent literature on how polarization has threatened democracies with a special focus on the role of political parties

Harvard University political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book titled ‘How democracies die’ argue that the modern democracies do not descend into autocracies after a coup, civil unrest or battle tanks roaming around the streets, but they become autocracies in a more subtle manner through democratic processes under a democratically elected government. These democratically elected governments use the very institutions of democracy to subvert it. They claim that the erosion of quotidian constitutional norms is responsible for this ‘democratic backsliding’. It’s massive polarization in the society, not on policy issues but on identity related issues that has resulted into the erosion of constitutional norms and hence leading to democratic backsliding, argue the authors.

Levitsky and Ziblatt have identified the following four key indicators to call a kind of government as authoritarian.

Look at these indicators very carefully. Don’t you think India ticks most of the boxes enlisted above?

Levitsky and Ziblatt further argue that the mainstream political parties can provide checks and balances to authoritarianism. Unfortunately, due to the deinstitutionalization of political parties in the past three decades, they have lost the power to check the rise of a demagogue.

A very similar theme has been covered in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy. Commenting on the crisis faced by the mainstream political parties across the world, the editors write, “When healthy, robust, and functioning, parties are liberal democracy’s lifeblood. Ideally, they stand for ideas and interests that are more enduring than victory in the next election. Their services are manifold, including policing their own members, ensuring a measure of policy coherence, and protecting institutional norms. Parties help the polity to remain within democratic guardrails, adding a layer of predictability that runs deeper than the passions and powers of any one political figure. They are, in essence, the organizing device of democratic politics.

Today, political parties are flagging. Public discontent with mainstream parties has soared as they have failed to address voters’ concerns. The chasm between voters’ demands and what traditional parties have served up has widened, leading to thinned membership rolls and dwindling influence. Traditional parties are no longer trusted brands. Predictably, antiestablishment alternatives—whether far right, far left, populist, or an illiberal mélange—have risen quickly, and threaten to become more lasting features of the democratic landscape.

Political scientists Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer, in their essay titled ‘Overcoming Polarization’ published in the same issue of the journal argue that “polarization is a process of simplifying politics by presenting either-or choices to the public, thus consolidating the political field into opposing, increasingly immovable blocs. It becomes pernicious, or harmful for democracy, when it divides the electorate into two mutually distrustful camps.

Explaining the logic of polarization, they write, “We identified a sequence of steps, illustrated in the Figure below, that begins with a political entrepreneur exploiting popular grievances by using “us versus them” rhetoric, casting blame on alleged enemies, and fueling suspicion and distrust. These polarizing actors also draw on or invent political identities, and stories supporting these identities, that mobilize otherwise diverse constituencies. Overtime, such actors, divide electorates into opposing political camps with fewer and fewer cross-cutting ties. Politics takes on the dynamics of an intense conflict whose participants display in-group loyalty coupled with dislike and distrust of the opposing group, which they come to view as an existential threat. Simultaneously, political leaders wield polarization to discredit and sideline opponents or internal rivals, as well as to disrupt established rules and institutions.

In another insightful essay titled ‘The cost of convergence’ in the same issue, political scientists Sheri Berman and Hans Kundani, argue that the rise of populist leaders and right-wing parties in Europe happened because of the convergence of the parties. Without the presence of an alternate ideology, most of these parties started to look the same.

After 1945, parties of the center-left and center-right predominated in Western Europe. These parties had fairly clear political profiles and identities as well as reliable partisans and voters. In the twentieth century’s waning years, mainstream center-left and center-right parties in many European countries began to converge to the point where they no longer offered voters clear alternatives on many of the most pressing issues of the day,” write the authors.


Talking about Europe, Berman and Kundani write, “This is what has happened in many European countries since the end of the last century. Center-left parties moved to the center on economic issues while some center-right parties moderated their positions on traditional values, immigration, and other concerns related to national identity. A gap developed between voters’ preferences and what the traditional parties were offering. Old partisan allegiances lost their hold on voters; not a few drifted into apathy. Seeing an opportunity, right-wing populist parties reshaped their profiles to better meet disaffected voters’ preferences. Such parties began picking up votes and did especially well when issues such as immigration and national identity came to the fore, highlighting the contrast between populists and traditional parties.”

The history of the convergence of the political parties, that the authors have explained, is quite interesting and is relevant in Indian context.

During the decades after World War II, West European party systems were dominated by center-left (social-democratic, socialist, or labor) parties such as the SPD and center-right (Christian-democratic or conservative) parties such as the CDU and the CSU. These parties mainly competed on economic issues: Parties on the left favored a more activist state, higher social spending, and the public provision of key goods such as education and healthcare. Parties on the right argued for a smaller state and a greater role for families as well as religious and private charitable organizations in social provision.

Whether left or right of center, these parties were strong, mass organizations with extensive ties to civil society associations and interest groups (most notably unions for the left and business organizations on the right). These bonds helped to mobilize voters at election time, and maintained their loyalty between elections. Partisanship was high, or in scholarly language, voters were “strongly aligned” with their respective parties. Indeed, it was not uncommon, particularly on the left, for party membership to be viewed as part of one’s personal identity—as is the case in polarized polities today.

The combination of relatively clear party profiles, strong party organizations, and high levels of political membership and partisanship made postwar West European party systems and voting patterns quite stable: The established, mainstream parties consistently garnered the votes of the vast majority of voters. Electoral volatility—the incidence of party-switching by voters from one election to the next—was comparatively low. As one representative study of the postwar decades noted, “the electoral strength of most parties . . . since the war has changed very little from election to election.” Indeed, European party systems and the voting patterns of various groups were so stable that in 1967, Stein Rokkan and Seymour Martin Lipset famously called them “frozen.”

At the end of the 1970s, however, party systems and voting patterns began to “unfreeze” as partisanship declined and electoral volatility increased. The strong, mass parties of the postwar era began transforming into what Richard Katz and Peter Mair have termed “cartel parties” that were focused more on capturing state resources and maintaining political power than on mobilizing and maintaining the loyalty of voters. This shift was reflected in parties’ weakening ties to civil society organizations, increasingly technocratic leadership cadres, and, most strikingly, declining party membership. As one study put it, by the end of the twentieth century there was “scarcely any other indicator relating to mass politics in Europe that reveals such a strong and consistent trend as that which we see with respect to the decline of party membership.”

Accompanying these organizational shifts were programmatic and relational ones. During the last years of the twentieth century, the policy profiles and appeals of the respective mainstream center-left and center-right parties became fuzzier and less distinctive. In Europe, convergence during the late twentieth century was driven primarily by an almost universal trend by mainstream parties of the left shifting to the center on economic issues and diluting or even ditching the identity-or class-based appeals that had characterized them during the postwar decades—another interesting contrast to the U.S. case, where polarization was driven primarily by a shift to the right by the mainstream party of the right, the Republicans.

During the postwar period, West European center-left parties were associated with the view that it was the job of democratic governments to protect citizens from capitalism’s negative consequences. Concretely, as noted above, this meant championing an activist state and high public spending. In addition, although postwar center-left parties tried to capture votes outside the working class, their appeals nonetheless centered on representing the economic interests of workers and others vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism. The identities of center-left parties remained, in other words, significantly class-based even if they now claimed to represent the working classes rather than a single working class.

This changed during the late twentieth century. Center-left parties began moving to the center economically. Facing the declining efficacy of many postwar policies, urged on by international organizations and economists (even those affiliated with the left), and lacking any distinctive alternatives of their own, center-left parties accepted deregulation, welfare-state cutbacks, and globalization. This was true across Western Europe: Even avatars of social democracy such as Scandinavia’s center-left parties accepted policies, such as partial privatization of the welfare state, that would have been unthinkable in decades prior. Convergence on economic issues was furthered by the evolution of the European Union, which increasingly constrained the policy alternatives that national parties could offer voters, thereby “arguably undermining one of the primary functions of the domestic electoral process—namely to offer voters a broad range of policy alternatives.” This shift to the center by mainstream center-left parties moved them away from voters with left-wing economic preferences, a category in which workers and other citizens with low levels of income and education were over represented.

By the late 1990s, as one study put it, “Social Democracy . . . had more in common with its main competitors than with its own positions roughly three decades earlier.” As they watered down their economic-policy stands, center-left parties also began deemphasizing class. Increasingly, their leaders came not from blue-collar ranks, but from a highly educated elite. By the late twentieth century, social-democratic parties were no longer clearly working-class parties but rather represented, as Thomas Piketty recently put it, “the Brahmin left.”

The convergence lead to these 3 consequences:

First, the center-left’s shift to the center on economic policy gave right-wing populists an incentive to change their own economic profiles. When Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the Danish Progress Party emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, they supported free markets and opposed taxes and state intervention. Noticing the space left open by changes in center-left parties and voter allegiances, right-wing populist parties in the years after 2000 began criticizing globalization and embracing what is sometimes called “welfare chauvinism.” This is the idea that the main question regarding the welfare state is less its size than who gets to enjoy its benefits: not immigrants and refugees but “native-born” citizens.

Second, convergence on economic issues helped to push non economic ones to the fore. “Over the last decades,” as one of several studies in this vein has noted, “economic issues . . . lost salience in all [European] countries except Germany.” This benefited right-wing populists, who are seen as having the clearest and most consistent policies on various cultural issues, particularly immigration. These issues tend, moreover, to divide center-left voters while uniting far-right voters, who are unified around cultural concerns.

Third, convergence produced center-left and center-right parties with policy offerings that no longer matched the preferences of many voters. The center-left’s shift meant that voters with left-wing economic preferences, including these parties’ traditional working-class voters, no longer had a reason to view social-democratic parties as champions of their economic interests. Once right-wing populists moderated their own economic profiles, embracing “welfare chauvinism,” protectionism, and so on, working-class and other voters with left-wing economic preferences could easily vote for them. In Austria, France, and elsewhere, the largest working-class party is now from the populist right.

As mentioned earlier, many political scientists are of the view that the loss of trust in the mainstream political parties created a vacuum that was filled by populist right-winged leaders. A very similar phenomenon has played out in India as well. According to the Politics and Society Between Elections 2019 report, political parties are the least trusted institutions in India.

Talking about the rise of anti-establishment parties and the decline of traditional political parties, political scientists Casal Bertoa and Jose Rama write, “In a recent study examining the more consolidated democracies of Western Europe since 1848, we find that the malfunctioning of traditional political parties—especially in terms of representation and mobilization—has been crucial to anti establishment parties’ electoral success, particularly since 2008. Indeed, the crisis of traditional parties has been even more significant in this regard than social transformations such as globalization and secularization. Contrary to our prior expectations, economic development per se and even the 1929 economic crisis did not act as major determinants of support for anti establishment political players, but the global post-2008 crisis, which was sociopolitical as well as economic, did play this role. In 1929, mainstream parties were strong, and anti establishment parties thrived for different reasons (particularly the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution). Many of the democracies that collapsed in the interwar period actually did so before the 1929 crash (as in Portugal, Spain, Poland, Italy, San Marino, and Yugoslavia). The recent rise of anti establishment parties, by contrast, has mostly taken place since 2008 (think of Spain, Greece, Hungary, and Germany). Again, however, it was not the economic crisis per se that produced this effect; instead, it was the impact that the crisis made in an environment of preexisting party weakness. When the Great Recession hit West European democracies that were already under strain due to the dysfunction of mainstream parties, it produced cracks that offered anti-establishment forces an opening onto the political scene.”


Roberto Stefan Foa argues, “While there are individual cases of countries that have managed to achieve state strengthening and political liberalization simultaneously, the general record among new democracies has been disappointing. In many countries, bureaucratic structures inherited from authoritarian regimes have been subject to attrition and clientelism. Elected politicians have used public-sector jobs as a form of patronage, engaged in partisan vetting and lustration of civil servants, tolerated corruption among party allies, and politicized formerly autonomous government agencies. Meanwhile, persistent challenges of organized criminality and violence have beset new democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. These shortcomings have not only eroded support for the first generation of post transition political elites, but also led to fraying confidence in liberal democracy among the growing urban middle class. For this reason, authoritarian politicians promising to cut through the gridlock and “make tough decisions” have acquired a mass base of political support. In many cases, they have managed to gain elected office, and from that position have begun eroding democratic rights and freedoms—by pursuing authoritarian approaches to law and justice or to fighting ethnic insurgency, and by removing legislative checks and balances while consolidating their own power.

In an insightful piece, Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav argue that due to the recent constitutional and institutional changes, three faces of the Indian state have emerged- ethnic state, absolute state and opaque state.

They write, “The interaction between these three faces of the state—ethnic, absolute, and opaque—remains to be fully studied. At one level, it is easy to see that each aspect feeds into and strengthens the others. Rather than being in mutual conflict, the myriad justifications behind ethnic differentiation, absolute power, and a lack of transparency complement and reinforce one another. For example, the use of religion as a criterion for citizenship strengthens attempts to reduce federal autonomy—as can be most powerfully seen in the context of Jammu and Kashmir, which before its bifurcation and demotion to union territory status was India’s only Muslim-majority state. At another level, however, the state is creating additional layers of mistrust between citizens and itself on issues such as surveillance: Ethnic differentiation means that some citizens (most notably, religious minorities) need to fear being surveilled more than others do. Similarly, the state’s opaque character not only reveals itself in the context of government data; it also feeds into, for instance, the way Parliament has come to operate without that essential feature of a legislative body, deliberation.

Khosla and Vaishnav concludes, “India’s new constitutionalism has altered the meaning of legitimate state action. The focus today is exclusively on the source of power (popular authorization), rather than on a classical-liberal concern with how power is used (in ways that respect and promote freedom rather than baffle or override it). This political shift reminds us that only within the domain of politics, through the emergence of new alignments and ideas, can a different constitutionalism arise. Thus India’s long-term challenge is not simply to generate a new popular will but also to establish rules and practices that can provide a new account of the legitimate exercise of power.