Guardians of Democracy or Passive Bystanders? A Conjoint Experiment on Elite Transgressions of Democratic Norms

AuthorInga A.-L. Saikkonen,Henrik Serup Christensen
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 127142
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211073592
Guardians of Democracy or Passive
Bystanders? A Conjoint Experiment on
Elite Transgressions of Democratic Norms
Inga A.-L. Saikkonen
*and Henrik Serup Christensen
Emerging literature shows that citizens in established democracies do not unconditionally support central democratic
principles when asked to weigh them against co-partisanship or favored policy positions. However, these studies are
conducted in highly polarized contexts, and it remains unclear whether the underlying mechanisms also operate in more
consensual contexts. Furthermore, it is unclear whether critical citizensor satisf‌ied democrats are more eager to
support democratic principles. We study these questions with evidence from a conjoint experiment conducted in Finland
(n= 1030), an established democracy with high levels of democratic satisfaction and a consensual political culture. We
examine how transgressions of two central democratic norms, the legitimacy of political opposition and the inde-
pendence of the judiciary, affect leader favorability. We also explore how these differ acro ss ideological and policy
congruence and across levels of political disaffection. Our results show that some segments of the Finnish population are
willing to condone authoritarian behavior if this brings them political benef‌its. Furthermore, we f‌ind tha t satisf‌ied rather
than criticalcitizens are more likely to sanction such behavior. These f‌indings suggest that dangers of democratic
deconsolidation may appear even in consensus democracies with relatively low levels of political polarization.
democratic deconsolidation, democratic transgressions, political dissatisfaction, policy congruence, conjoint experiments
Public support for democracy is essential for democratic
stability (Dahl 1956,Lipset 1959,Easton 1965). Recent
scholarship has debated whether voters in established
democracies are increasingly willing to support more
authoritarian political alternatives to democracy, but the
f‌indings are very mixed (Foa and Mounk 2016,2017 vs.
Alexander and Welzel 2017,Norris 2017,Voeten 2017).
Most recent studies have concluded that even though
voters in established democracies are very critical on how
democracy functions in their countries, they are still
supportive of core democratic principles and continue to
endorse democracy as a political system (Norris 1999,
2017,Wuttke et al. 2020).
Yet, democratic stability also requires that people are
willing to translate their pro-democratic attitudes into
practice, by being willing to defend democracy against the
transgressions of political leaders (Weingast 1997,2005,
Fearon 2011, for a discussion, see also Luo and
Przeworski 2019). Indeed, classical liberal democratic
theory stresses the need for citizen vigilance against the
potential abuse of power by the state(Norris 2011, 245).
Alarmed by the rise of populist and authoritarian politi-
cians in the world an emerging line of scholarship has
begun to examine whether citizens in established de-
mocracies are willing to condemn democratic transgres-
sions by politicians, especially when this means
prioritizing democratic principles against favored policy
goals or co-partisanship (Carey et al. 2020,Graham and
Svolik 2020). Most prominently, Graham and Svolik
(2020) found that when voters are asked to weigh their
support for democratic principles against partisan interests
Social Science Research Institute and the Department of Political
Abo Akademi University, Finland
Department of Political Science,
Abo Akademi University, Finland
*Both authors contributed equally
Corresponding Author:
Henrik Serup Christensen, Department of Political Science,
Akademi Ekonomisk-statsvetenskapliga fakulteten, F¨
anriksgatan 3a,
20500, Finland.
Email: henrik.christensen@abo.f‌i
or policy concerns, they care more about them than
democratic norms (for more nuanced f‌indings, see Carey
et al. 2020). These f‌indings are in line with earlier studies
that have shown that citizens take into consideration
multiple issue areas when evaluating the conduct of
politicians, and do not always punish malfeasantpol-
iticians if supporting these politicians brings adjacent
benef‌its (Klaˇ
snja and Tucker 2013,Franchino and
Zucchini 2015,Breitenstein 2019, see also Singer 2018).
We contribute to both literatures with the help of data
from a conjoint survey experiment embedded in a na-
tionally representative survey carried out in Finland in
May and June 2020. First, building on Carey et al. (2020)
and Graham and Svolik (2020), we examine whether
Finnish citizens support core democratic principles, es-
pecially when they are asked to weigh them against other
important dimensions, such as ideological or policy
congruence. Conjoint experiments are particularly suited
for exploring these questions as they enable us to probe
respondentsattitudes toward democracy while avoiding
problems with social desirability bias that may affect
answers to direct survey questions (Hainmueller et al.
2014,Svolik 2019 and 2020). Moreover, the experimental
design allows us to explore the multidimensional choices
that citizens make when assessing the behavior of (un)
democratic politicians and allows us to probe citizens
actualcommitment to democratic values as opposed to
their statedpreferences measured in comparative surveys
(see Svolik 2019 and 2020,Graham and Svolik 2020).
Our results show that most Finnish citizens continue to
support core principles of democracy. However, worry-
ingly, we also f‌ind that even in Finland, with high levels of
democratic satisfaction (Rapeli and Koskimaa 2020) and a
consensual political culture (Karvonen 2014), some
people are willing to ignore blatant transgressions of
democratic principles when there is ideological and policy
goal alignment. The extant literature on votersreactions
to democratic transgressions has examined these trade-
off effectsmostly in highly politically polarized contexts,
such as the US and Venezuela (Carey et al. 2020,Graham
and Svolik 2020,Svolik 2020). These studies have
suggested that individual-level political polarization is
partially driving the unwillingness of voters to condemn
democratic norm violations by politicians (McCoy and
Somer 2019,Svolik 2019 and 2020,Graham and Svolik
2020). Our empirical setting allows us to examine voter
reactions to democratic norm violations by politicians in a
polity characterized by high degrees of social trust
oderlund 2019) and relatively low ideological and af-
fective polarization (Isotalo et al. 2020,Reiljan 2020,
Wagner 2021). Yet we f‌ind that segments of the Finnish
population are willing to make signif‌icant trade-offs be-
tween democratic principles and policy concerns. This
suggests that these concerns may not be purely driven by
political polarization but may be more general to political
behavior in established democracies.
We also examine differences across levels of political
disaffection and thus contribute to the debate on the
linkage between democratic disaffection and support for
democracy. Toour knowledge, this has not been examined
with experimental evidence previously. We f‌ind that
citizens with higher levels of political trust and democratic
satisfaction are more likely to defend core democratic
principles. This suggests that citizens with high political
satisfaction rather than the critical citizens(see Norris
1999) are the true guardians of democracy.
Theoretical Expectations: Citizens and
Democratic Transgressions
Democracy is a multidimensional concept. Mettler and
Lieberman (2020) argue that the functioning of modern
representative democracy is based on four essential di-
mensions: free and fair elections, respecting the civil and
political rights of the population, respecting the legitimacy
of the political opposition, and respecting the system of
separation of powers and the rule of law. The latter two
dimensions, respecting the legitimacy of political oppo-
sition and respecting the independence of the judiciary,
have been especially under attack in many European
established democracies, and we therefore focus on
measuring citizen responses to the trampling of these two
key democratic norms.
First, we examine citizensreactions to politicians
breaking the democratic norm of respecting the legitimacy
of the political opposition. Modern representative de-
mocracy is based on free competition between politicians
for the support of the voters (Schumpeter 1942). The
functioning of representative democracy thus entails that
politicians respect the legitimacy of their political op-
ponents and do not prevent each other from governing or
campaigning (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018,Mettler and
Lieberman 2020). Building on the work of Juan Linz
(1978) Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) argued that toleration
for or encouragement of violence against political op-
position are warning signs that can help to identify pol-
iticians with authoritarian tendencies. We f‌irst examine
how Finnish citizens react to politicians seeking to restrict
political competition by exhorting the use of political
violence against their opponents. The literature on social
norms and informal institutions suggests that citizens
should punish transgressions of socially shared norms
such as basic democratic principles (Helmke and Levitsky
2004). Finnish voters report one of the highest levels of
democratic satisfaction in Europe, and the level of sat-
isfaction has remained rather stable over time (Karvonen,
a-Kekkonen 2015,Rapeli and Koskimaa
2020). Overall, we expect Finnish citizens to condemn
128 Political Research Quarterly 76(1)

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