Reference Points and Democratic Backsliding

The forthcoming articles “Reference Points and Democratic Backsliding” by Edoardo Grillo and Carlo Prato is summarized by the author(s) below. 

The article asks: if citizens value democratic norms, why don’t they electorally punish incumbents who violate them? Using insights from psychology, we formally show that incumbents can use backsliding early in the cycle to manipulate the standards to which their voters will hold them to—their reference points. Challenging democratic norms hurts voters, but also lowers their reference points by making them pessimistic about subsequent violations. Because challenging democratic norms moves the goal post in the incumbent’s direction, democratic backsliding can arise even when the incumbent and most voters intrinsically dislike it. Contrary to existing accounts, our theory suggests that mass polarization should not only increase the frequency of severe violations of democratic norms, but also decrease the frequency of milder violations.  

About the Author(s): Edoardo Grillo is Assistant Professor at Collegio Carlo Alberto and Carlo Prato is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Their research “Reference Points and Democratic Backsliding” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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