'Rationalising democracy': explaining a common logic

Why do people committed to democracy explicitly support undemocratic behaviour by their politicians? Suthan Krishnarajan argues that it all comes down to perception. Sometimes, politicians establish policies that attract widespread support, but they do so in an undemocratic fashion. Citizens then 'rationalise democracy' to reassure themselves that politicians are indeed acting in their best interests

A 'specimen of democracy' worthy of analysis

In his essay for this series, Laurence Whitehead argues that 'it is worth examining specimen uses of the word 'democracy' one at a time'. I follow this advice to explain the concept of 'rationalising democracy'.

As it is given in the form of a present participle verb, the concept of 'rationalising democracy' is an active one. It describes a dynamic in which people who support democracy also support undemocratic behaviours of elected politicians. This dynamic is all too common in democracies today.

What follows is an explanation of this logical contradiction. I need to underscore that it highlights an inherent confusion over the very meaning of democracy. This is because people cannot even agree on what is acceptable behaviour, or conduct, in the 'democracy' they ostensibly share.

Democrats for non-democracy?

Politicians often violate democratic rules and norms in Western democracies.

Recent examples include Donald Trumps attempt to overturn the 2020 US presidential election, the Fidesz governments closure of various Hungarian media outlets, and the Law and Justice partys capturing of the Polish Supreme Court. When this happens, we know that ardent supporters without democratic commitments keep supporting them.

However, we also see that large parts of the general population often also accept undemocratic behaviours by politicians. These are citizens with deep commitments to democracy, who nonetheless decide to condone such actions by politicians on their political side. In many ways, this reflects an even more worrying challenge for todays democracies. Most of the people who accept undemocratic behaviour firmly believe themselves to be democrats.

Most of the people who accept undemocratic behaviour firmly believe themselves to be democrats

This begs a question: when citizens accept undemocratic behaviour for political reasons, do they acknowledge that they are endorsing something undemocratic?

'Rationalising democracy' explained

According to existing research, people deliberately accept such undemocratic behaviour in order to see their preferred policies enacted. That is, they accept it with open eyes. In a new study, I offer an important alternative to such conventional practices.

Citizens do not deliberately accept undemocratic behaviour for political gain. Rather, they rationalise their conceptions of what is democratic and undemocratic.

That is, they convince themselves that a given undemocratic behaviour is, in fact, perfectly democratic. For example, a person who favours stricter immigration policy might encounter a politician who acts undemocratically while implementing anti-immigration measures. Yet, rather than accepting this as a necessary undemocratic cost to secure preferred policy, the citizen might simply perceive the behaviour as complying with democratic principles.

People find ways to convince themselves they are getting their desired policy and democracy. In this way, they are 'rationalising democracy'

Thus, people do not give up democracy in a calculating way to win politically. Instead, they find ways to convince themselves they are getting their desired policy and democracy. In this way, they are 'rationalising democracy'.

A new study

To test this claim, I conducted a survey experiment on a representative sample of around 3,300 respondents in the United States. The experimental design confronts respondents with fictional behaviours by politicians. These vary randomly on both democratic behaviour (regular versus undemocratic) and policy issues surrounding the behaviour (e.g. pro-immigration or anti-immigration). Respondents then express, in various ways, how democratic they perceive the behaviour to be, and provide justifications for their answers in open-ended questions.

The results demonstrate consistently that many people rationalise their perceptions of democracy. When people are confronted with undemocratic behaviours by a politician they agree with politically, they do not seem to acknowledge that it is undemocratic. If confronted with similar undemocratic behaviour from a politician they disagree with politically, they see it as clearly undemocratic. Such democratic rationalisation is consistent across the political spectrum from left to right. It is equally strong among right-wing and left-wing citizens. It is not simply a far-right phenomenon, as many might assume.

A universal phenomenon?

In a second study, I examined whether such dynamics were only present in the US or whether they are universal across various Western democracies. The central part of the experimental study was undertaken on representative samples of more than 28,000 total respondents in 22 democracies worldwide. The results were remarkably consistent, revealing that democratic rationalisation is a universal feature of modern democratic politics today.

Yet the global results also reveal marked differences across the world. In troubled democracies with recent experiences of backsliding such as India, the Czech Republic, and Hungary people engage extensively in rationalisation. Rationalisation is also almost as prevalent in large Western democracies such as the United States, France, and Poland. At the other end of the spectrum, citizens in well-functioning democracies such as the Scandinavian countries and Germany are less likely to rationalise in this way.

Implications for our democracies today

These findings are concerning. People do not give up democracy in a calculating manner to gain politically. Instead, they accept undemocratic behaviour because they do not perceive it as undemocratic. The challenges we face in many democracies are thus more formidable than hitherto acknowledged. This is because citizens cannot even agree on when a particular behaviour violates the democratic rules of the game.

Violations of democracy should, to quote Abraham Lincoln, 'stink in the nostrils' of the citizenry in well-functioning democracies

Even when democracy violation is indisputable, many find ways to overlook its undemocratic character if they agree with it politically. Violations of democracy should, to quote Abraham Lincoln, 'stink in the nostrils' of the citizenry in well-functioning democracies and induce people to reject such behaviour. Unfortunately, this often does not happen because citizens let their political viewpoints colour their democratic perceptions. This, in turn, allows them to support violations of democracy without the odour of undemocratic behaviour.

It might provide one explanation for why democratically elected leaders in todays democracies so often get away with violating democracy without electoral backlash.

No.86 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for theto read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Suthan Krishnarajan
Suthan Krishnarajan
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University

Suthans research agenda seeks to understand and explain political regime instability.

In particular, he attempts to uncover citizens inherent regime preferences and willingness to accept undemocratic behaviour.


He tweets @Suthan_1607

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