In addressing how factions and organizational issues within and across the parties influence whether parties and leaders behave responsibly, this chapter assesses party and actor incentives. It explains the incentives parties have to engage in democratic backsliding, what drives the size and strength of anti-democratic factions within parties, and effective strategies for countering anti-democratic party actors and
practices. Moderating influences on party behavior are shaped by the incentives of the institutional landscape.
This chapter addresses the question of how factions and organizational issues within and across the parties influence how and whether parties and leaders behave responsibly.
The first point is that “behaving responsibly” is defined here as acting in accordance with maintaining a pluralist democracy, enacting and practicing the rules of the democratic game in law and in spirit. Normative and formal institutional adherence to sustaining democratic practice are both necessary components to behaving responsibly. That is, political parties and their leaders have to play by the shared rules of the game that keep democracy “the only game in town.” In doing so, they have to find ways for the party to moderate extremist personalities or factions that violate that democratic spirit and practice.
The second point is that incentives and constraints for parties and party leaders behaving responsibly is the flip side of the coin of parties engaged in democratic backsliding. The chapter addresses the incentives parties have to engage in democratic backsliding, what drives the size and strength of anti-democratic factions within parties, and what are effective strategies for countering anti-democratic party actors and practices.
In connection to the insights across this report, a key conclusion is that in order for moderating influences of inclusion to function effectively within parties, and to incentivize democratic behavior, the surrounding landscape of rules and institutions (primaries, district apportionment, media regulation, campaign finance) must provide a permissive landscape and shape incentives for the representative and moderating functions of centripetal party competition.
Behaving Responsibly as Democratic Practice
Political parties and political leaders within (or beyond) parties have been experimenting across the world over the last decade — using democratic institutions, such as courts, legislatures, electoral commissions, and other formal levers to seek partisan (or personal) advantage while overseeing democratic backsliding.1Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27 (1): 5-19.2Diamond, Larry. 2020. Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. New York: Penguin.3Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.4Lührmann, Anna and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2019. “A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here: What is New About It?.”Democratization 26 (7): 1095-1113. In the United States, for example, national parties — and recently the Republican Party disproportionately — implement gerrymandering, voter suppression, and use state level governmental authorities to erode the foundations of democracy.5Grumbach, Jacob. 2022. Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Free and fair elections, the recognition of a legitimate opposition, the rule of law, institutional checks and balances, and the integrity of rights have declined in the U.S. in the decades since the enacting of the Voting Rights Act, as measured by comparative democracy indices.6Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth M. Roberts, eds. 2022. Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? Cambridge University Press.7Mettler, Suzanne, and Robert C. Lieberman. 2020. Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.8Mickey, Robert. 2015. Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South, 1944-1972. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.9See the indices compiled by the Varieties of Democracy Project (https://v-dem.net/), Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores), the Democratic Erosion Consortium (https://www.democratic-erosion.com/event-dataset), and Bright Line Watch (http://brightlinewatch.org). Across the world, and in the U.S. in particular, this era of autocratization is marked by gradual democratic restrictions and rollbacks under a legal façade.
Political parties — and factions within them — may act as champions and guardians of democratic practice10Gamboa, Laura. 2022. Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press., or they may be instigating irresponsible, anti- democratic practices. How can parties and party actors be incentivized and constrained to behave responsibly, that is, democratically? And when and why are they likely to engage in democratic backsliding?
The first step in answering this question is to define behaving responsibly as preserving democratic structures and observing democratic norms. This builds upon, but goes beyond Ranney’s11Ranney, Austin. 1951. “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Commentary.” American Political Science Review 45 (2): 488-499. definition of responsibility as “responsiveness.” Responsiveness to the best interests and preferences of the citizens at large (or to the constituencies that elected the leadership) is one component of a broader commitment and superseding responsibility to upholding the norms and rules of the regime itself. Democracy requires representatives to engage in collective and cooperative decision-making.12Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. 1991. “What Democracy Is… and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2 (3): 75-88. Governing democratically requires sustaining democracy while simultaneously representing one’s constituents — rather than seeking partisan or interest group gains at the expense of the democratic regime itself.
Behaving responsibly as democratic practice requires constraints on the government’s use of political power, through vertical accountability (mechanisms for citizens to hold their elected representatives to task, such as elections) and horizontal accountability (checks and balances across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as other state institutions).13O’Donell, Guillermo A. 1994. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5 (1): 55-69. Behaving irresponsibly would be to try to evade, dismantle, or weaponize such institutional checks for partisan advantage, such as playing constitutional hardball to use the Senate’s power to block presidential court nominees and cabinet appointments.14Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. In the United States, federalism may also be considered a mechanism of horizontal accountability through which the state and federal governments constrain each other’s power. In the current era, we can also add diagonal accountability (the role of the media and civil society to check government and increase transparency of its actions).15Lührmann, Anna, Kyle L. Marquardt, and Valeriya Mechkova. 2020. “Constraining Governments: New Indices of Vertical, Horizontal, and Diagonal Accountability.” American Political Science Review 114 (3): 811-820. Parties that engage in democratic backsliding often seek to weaken these constraints, by co-opting and controlling the institutions through which accountability is meant to function. This may mean, for example, passing legislation that criminalizes media or civil society whistleblowing; orchestrating judicial appointments to partisan ends to lessen horizontal accountability; and/or limiting the equal electoral power of each voter to hold their representatives accountable vertically through dark money campaign financing.16Page, Benjamin I., and Martin Gilens. 2020. Democracy in America?: What has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. University of Chicago Press. These are examples of the “winners dilemma”17Roberts, Kenneth. Forthcoming. “Democracy’s Dialectic: Backsliding, Resiliency, and Democratic Theory.”In Global Challenges to Democracy, eds Kenneth Roberts, Valerie Bunce, Rachel Beatty Riedl, and Thomas Pepinsky. or “increasing returns” to power18Przeworski, Adam. 1991. Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press., where those parties or factions that control a particular lever try to turn the transitory institutional leverage of incumbency into a source of permanent competitive advantage.19Singer, Matthew. 2018. “Delegating Away Democracy: How Good Representation and Policy Successes can Undermine Democratic Legitimacy.” Comparative Political Studies 51 (13): 1754-1788.
Institutional forbearance is therefore a key component of behaving responsibly, encompassing both normative and formal institutional adherence to the democratic rules of the game.20Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Forbearance means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.” “Institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system.”21Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
One key challenge to this formulation is that parties (and factions or ideological streams within parties) will disagree on what protecting democracy is, or the extent of its necessity. This report takes pluralistic democracy as the normative goal. But across a diverse political landscape, people with different political orientations also hold conflicting views of what the opposite to democracy would be in terms of both its conception and its outcomes.22Slater, Dan. 2013. “Democratic Careening.” World Politics 65 (4): 729-763. That is, there may be factions that deny the democratic legitimacy of political opponents and manipulate democratic institutions to exclude them or weaken them to the extent of becoming unequal players.
For democratic institutionalists (in the U.S. context, these are generally mainstream liberals and conservatives), the opposition to democracy is authoritarianism. They are concerned with the breakdown of democratic rules and practices, and the crux of concern is around fair elections and the civil rights and political freedoms that undergird the system.
But for the much of the right, democracy’s opposite may be communism or socialism.23Blondel, Jean. 1997. “Political Opposition in the Contemporary World.” Government and Opposition 32 (4) : 462-486. Therefore, the core concern may be around protecting economic rights and individual freedoms. Or, much of the new right defines democracy’s opposite as including minority social groups that are not deemed to be full members of “the people,” and thus should be excluded or relegated to secondary status in the democratic order. In this concern, protecting democracy is about limiting who participates. And for those on the left, the concern may be elite control and the replacement of the equal weight of citizens’ voices with the concentrated power of oligarchy.
These different conceptions of democratic fundamentals and opposites puts factions and parties at odds in addressing: who participates, what liberties should be protected to nourish and preserve democracy, and which competitive guardrails (formal and informal institutions) must be maintained versus relaxed to guarantee ‘democratic’ outcomes.
To be sure, political parties largely serve as a mechanism for channeling competition, participation, and aggregating of interests as democratic practice. This chapter takes up the rise of factions within parties that challenge democratic practice: when and why do such factions arise and how can they be contained to act responsibly, in order to protect pluralist, institutional democracy?The Size and Strength of Anti-Democratic Factions Within and Across Parties
Incentives and Constraints for Parties Behaving Responsibly: The Size and Strength of Anti-Democratic Factions Within and Across Parties
There may be many reasons why anti-democratic factions rise and fall within parties, and across the party system landscape. In the contemporary United States (and global) context, I highlight two key reasons. First, changes in the social, economic, media, and fundraising environment have decoupled parties from their voter bases in ways that weaken them as vertically accountable (to the electorate) institutions. Second, the extent to which anti-democratic actors align toward the “responsible democratic behavior” center of each party is shaped by overall regime uncertainty, party rules (such as primaries—see Chapter 6), electoral institutions, and popular support for candidates outside of the “democratic institutionalist center.” The two factors are ultimately related: inclusive moderation is limited in the current electoral institutional, and socio-economic/media/ party funding context.
Changing Socio-Economic and Technological Landscapes
Parties have long been seen as a key institution to channel the rising demands of changing, mobilizing societies.24Huntington, Samuel P. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press. But today’s decentralized, deregulated global media and information environment decenters messaging and allows for more direct communication between political leaders and specific, targeted audiences.25Mainwaring, Scott, and Mariano Torcal. 2006. “Party System Institutionalization and Party System Theory After the Third Wave of Democratization.” Chap. 18 in Handbook of Party Politics, eds. Richard S. Katz and William Crotty. London: SAGE. The consequence of television and internet decentralization, and internet candidate funding campaigns, means more candidate-centered elections, weakening parties, strengthening factions or individual candidates, and reducing the party’s intermediary role to provide coherent and consistent messages.26Mainwaring, Scott, and Mariano Torcal. 2006. “Party System Institutionalization and Party System Theory After the Third Wave of Democratization.” Chap. 18 in Handbook of Party Politics, eds. Richard S. Katz and William Crotty. London: SAGE. We see a general decline in the ability of parties to control processes of political communication and socialization, with voters being exposed to a wide range of alternative media sources that select for polarizing messaging, spread fake news and conspiracy theories, and sort voters into tribalized silos with extremely different interpretations of the political reality, including what is fact or fiction. Media and communication studies have documented the global trend connecting extremist ideological and organizational growth and the internet.27Ouellette, Laurie and Sarah Banet-Weiser. 2018. “Media and the Extreme Right: Editor’s Introduction.”Communication Culture & Critique 11 (1): 1-6.28Caiani, Manuela, and Linda Parenti. 2016. European and American Extreme Right Groups and the Internet. New York: Routledge. Media deregulation and decentralization provide new pathways to personalist candidates or party factions that are not constrained by the party’s assumed institutional preference for democratic longevity and stability.
In addition, a broad set of neoliberal reforms have generated extreme inequalities, decimating workers’ organization and de-institutionalizing parties around the globe.29Roberts, Kenneth M. 2014. Changing Course in Latin America. Cambridge University Press. There is a lack of programmatic differentiation on the key axis of economic policy, as elite center-left and center-right political party leaders converge on economic systems that continue to allow and even increase inequality30As Democrats moved to the center on economic issues since the early 1990’s, reflecting a pro-market policy orientation, where economic ideological polarization has occurred, it has largely been asymmetrical, with Republicans moving much more dramatically to the right in a unilateral radicalization (Grossman and Hopkins 2016). The structural asymmetry of the parties in their social bases drives their different practices toward institutional hardball: today’s Republican Party is more socially homogeneous, predominantly white and Christian, and it has become a more ideologically grounded on specific social policies over time (Jardina 2019). This facilitates Republican party mobilization around targeted policy arenas, with concentrated costs and benefits, and “more likely than Democrats to eschew compromise and negotiation, and treating politics as mortal combat” (Lieberman, Mettler, and Roberts 2022, 30). In contrast, the Democratic Party’s greater heterogeneity on multiple dimensions (race, ethnicity, religion, and religiosity) makes for a party with internally crosscutting interests, pushing them to prioritize democratic pluralism, participation and inclusive policies (Mason and Kalmoe 2022; Lieberman, Mettler, and Roberts 2022). Yet, while the Republicans are more homogeneous on targeted social dimensions, they are largely disparate on class and income distribution. This leads to a party anomalous in the world: the plutocratic populists (Hacker and Pierson 2020). This means that many societal interests are excluded from effective representation in this key domain of policymaking — which enhances the appeal of populist outsiders.31Berman, Sheri and Maria Snegovaya. 2019. “Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30 (3): 5-19.32Lupu, Noam. 2016. Party Brands in Crisis: Partisanship, Brand Dilution, and the Breakdown of Political Parties in Latin America. Cambridge University Press.33Roberts, Kenneth M. 2014. Changing Course in Latin America. Cambridge University Press. As a result, parties increasingly face difficulty in anchoring themselves and aligning the electorate around programmatically differentiated policy preferences, thus weakening the very foundations of democratic representation.34Roberts, Kenneth M. 2014. Changing Course in Latin America. Cambridge University Press.35A broader argument can also connect rising inequality to democratic backsliding through the weakening of key institutions of horizontal accountability, such as the Courts (Huq 2023). The cumulative effect is a vicious cycle: outsiders may challenge established parties from within as a strong factional wing, or emerge as new insurgents from outside the established parties.
The changes in the economic and media environment mean that working-class parties no longer directly integrate workers into the political system and provide fundamental sources of identity.36Chalmers, Douglas A. 1964. The Social Democratic Party of Germany, from Working-class Movement to Modern Political Party. New Haven: Yale University Press.. Similarly, identity affinity parties can no longer rely heavily on voter integration through deep participation in party organizations at the local level.37Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2000. “Commitment Problems in Emerging Democracies: The Case of Religious Parties.” Comparative Politics 32 (4)(2000): 379-398. In sum, candidates have less need to rely on well-developed political party organizations because they can express themselves directly to voters through a variety of funding and media strategies38Gunther, Richard, and Larry Diamond. 2003. “Species of political parties: A new typology.” Party politics 9.2: 167-199.39Sartori, Giovanni, 1989. “Video-power.” Government and Opposition 24 (1): 39-53., as a consequence of Supreme Court decisions allowing for independent spending, dark money and corporate “personhood,” as well as candidates’ ability to raise money through small donations on the internet.40Gerken, Heather K. 2015. “The Real Problem with Citizens United: Campaign Finance, Dark Money, and Shadow Parties.”Marquette Law Review 105 (1): 5-16. The changing economic and media environment provides party faction with direct access to voters, and lessens parties’ ability to serve as the adaptable, institutionalized organizations that channel diverse demands into representative government.
As an essential element of the democratic equation41Huntington, Samuel P. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press.42Schattschneider, Elmer Eric.  2004. Party Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, political parties’ deinstitutionalization and weakness in the United States threatens democratic resilience.43A key contemporary component of deinstitutionalization of political parties in the U.S. context is the increasing “movementization” of the parties at the grass roots level, enabled by prior campaign finance changes and primary reforms, handing decision making power to the voters and eliminating party vetting of candidates. Such changes, as embodied by the Tea Party’s social base for Trump’s populist agenda, or the confluence of the Occupy Movement and support for Bernie Sanders, drive anti-establishment factions within parties. The movementization is made possible by these underlying socio-economic, media, and online funding changes in the broader political landscape. While partisan attachments are strong in the U.S., “institutional parties [currently] play a weak and unclear role in American political life. Party organizations face competition for volunteers and donors from issue-based and candidate-centered groups, and members of the public generally do not trust the two major parties.”44Azari, Julia. 2019. “The Puzzle of Weak Parties and Strong Partisanship.” Insights: Scholarly Work at the Kluge Center [blog], March 15. https://blogs.loc.gov/kluge/2019/03/the-puzzle-of-weak-parties-and-strong-partisanship. As Pierson and Shickler note, America’s “meso-institutions” — including political parties, interest groups, and news media — “have ceased to operate as countervailing mechanisms that constrain polarization, and have either weakened or turned into engines of polarization. As a result, partisan public officials increasingly run roughshod over checks and balances, seek to delegitimize and incapacitate the political opposition, and aim to rig the system to cement their dominance.”45Pierson, Paul and Erick Schickler. 2022.“Polarization and the Durability of Madisonian Checks and Balances: A Developmental Analysis.” Chapt. 2 in Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization?, eds. Robert C. Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth M. Roberts. Cambridge University Press.46These meso-institutional processes that fuel contemporary polarization and anti-democratic institutional hardball, are more intense on the right and provide continuing incentives for Republicans, more than Democrats, to pursue polarizing political strategies (Pierson and Schickler 2022).
Further, healthy democratic programmatic differentiation may become dysfunctional and polarizing when party internal cohesion is pulled to the extreme by organizational self-interest. Generally factions are constrained to the center positions by partisan teamsmanship, which generates centripetal party cohesion around a modal position.47Lee, Frances E. 2009. Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the US Senate. University of Chicago Press. But with extreme factions pulling a party to enact institutional hardball in their organizational favor, such centripetal forces may give way to the self-interest of ensuring party cohesion and strategic, electoral partisan gain. That is, anti-democratic practices, championed by a faction, may be accepted as a way to advance a party’s interest and maintain partisan cohesion, and to block effective horizontal accountability (by using partisan control over judicial, legislative, executive, or state administrative domains to advance the party’s electoral position and concentrate power). As polarization intensifies, party moderates stay in the fold and go along with the extremists when the latter control important grass-roots social bases, because the depth of polarized partisanship between the two parties makes it strategically impossible to break the mold and align with moderates on the other side of the partisan divide.
What are the antidotes to this context? How can more responsible, institutionalized parties and party systems be built anew and rebuilt from existing (but weak and fragmented) organizations? The comparative literature suggests strong roots in society are necessary, and that political actors accord legitimacy to parties.48Mainwaring, Scott, 1992. Brazilian party underdevelopment in comparative perspective. Political Science Quarterly, 107(4), pp.677-707. Though political actors accord parties legitimacy, parties cannot be subordinated to the interests of ambitious leaders; parties must acquire and maintain an independent status and value of their own.49Huntington, Samuel P. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press.50Mainwaring, Scott, and Mariano Torcal. 2006. “Party System Institutionalization and Party System Theory Afterthe Third Wave of Democratization.” Chap. 18 in Handbook of Party Politics, eds. Richard S. Katz and William Crotty. London: SAGE. Stable patterns of inter-party competition51Przeworski, Adam. 1975. “Institutionalization of voting patterns, or is mobilization the source of decay?.”American Political Science Review 69 (1): 49-67. and moderate inter- and intra- party volatility52Powell, Eleanor Neff, and Joshua A. Tucker. 2014. “Revisiting electoral volatility in post-communist countries: New data, new results and new approaches.” British Journal of Political Science 44, no. 1 : 123-147. help maintain deeply institutionalized party systems, and thus allow for deeper societal connections and legitimacy. Moreover, pro-democracy actors must organize above and beyond party lines to coordinate around democratic institutions and peaceful, issue-based popular mobilization against democratic erosion.53Gamboa, Laura, 2017. Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela. Comparative Politics 49 (4):457-477.54Somer, Murat, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke. 2021. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization 28 (5): 929-948. This focuses on institutional reform to lessen the winner-take-all stakes of elections in a highly polarized environment.
The Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis
Second, the size and strength of anti-democratic factions within and across parties may be shaped by the degree and form of inclusive participation the competitive system allows. The inclusion-moderation hypothesis suggests that inclusion in electoral competition incentives more extremist and anti-democratic actors to moderate toward the electorally competitive center.55Brocker, Manfred, and Mirjam Künkler. 2013. “Religious parties: Revisiting the inclusion-moderation hypothesis1- Introduction.” Party Politics 19 (2): 171-186.56Schwedler, Jillian. 2013. “Islamists in Power? Inclusion, Moderation, and the Arab Uprisings.”Middle East Development Journal 5 (1): 1350006-131. When extremist actors who are ideologically opposed to democracy (whether populist, anti-institutionalist, religious extremist, or otherwise) participate in the electoral realm and/or as governing partners, this inclusion should moderate extremist positions within the party and make them more accepting of the rules of the game.57Brocker, Manfred, and Mirjam Künkler. 2013. “Religious parties: Revisiting the inclusion-moderation hypothesis1- Introduction.” Party Politics 19 (2): 171-186.58Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2000. “Commitment Problems in Emerging Democracies: The Case of Religious Parties.” Comparative Politics 32 (4)(2000): 379-398.
But in many instances of democratic erosion across the world today, and in particular in the U.S., this hypothesis is failing. The classic Downsian logic of moderation works when the bulk of the electorate is concentrated around the median voter in the center. The logic breaks down when the electorate is divided into thirds around left, center, and right, and the tails of the electoral distribution have direct media and funding access to support extremist individuals and factions within the party.
Further, when the erosion of democracy itself is in question in electoral competition, it generates a lack of consensus among potential opposition elites, civil society, and voters about optimal strategic behavior, intentions, and balance of power with the opposition.59Cleary, Matthew and Aykut Öztür. 2022. When does backsliding lead to breakdown? Uncertainty and opposition strategies in democracies at risk. Perspectives on Politics 20 (1): 205-221.60Lupu, Noam and Rachel Beatty Riedl. 2013. “Political Parties and Uncertainty in Developing Democracies.”Comparative Political Studies 46 (11): 1339-1365.61Schedler, Andreas. 2001. “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.” Democratization 8 (4): 1-22. Factions within parties may internally contest whether to prioritize institutional democratic stability and maintain the shared rules of the game, or to press domains of partisan advantage to shift the playing field in their electoral favor. That is, should party control over the judiciary, state electoral officials, or other electoral agencies be used in service of partisan gain, to their electoral and ideological benefit? More extreme factions of the party generally push for this route over moderation. Or should institutional forbearance be primary, to prioritize the long-term stability of democratic party competition? Less extreme factions of the party may prioritize this route because they anticipate electoral success over the long term.
Regime uncertainty entails recognition that some democratic erosion has occurred, but uncertainty over the extent of it and how much competition has shifted away from a level playing field. Contrary to the inclusion-moderation hypothesis, regime uncertainty suggests different strategies for party behavior62Lupu, Noam and Rachel Beatty Riedl. 2013. “Political Parties and Uncertainty in Developing Democracies.”Comparative Political Studies 46 (11): 1339-1365. and different incentives for moderation.63Schedler, Andreas. 2001. “Taking Uncertainty Seriously: The Blurred Boundaries of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.” Democratization 8 (4): 1-22. If the context is perceived as a fairly democratic electoral competition, parties may be able to induce moderation of the extremes within them, prioritizing the political contest to gain the most popular support in general elections. But if parties face fundamental challenges to electoral integrity and rule of law, the incentives for moderation are severely diminished.64Somer, Murat, Jennifer McCoy, and Ozlem Tuncel. 2022.“ Toward a New Transition Theory: Opposition Dilemmas and Countering Democratic Erosion.” APSA Preprints. doi: 10.33774/apsa-2022-nr4mz.
Therefore, in the United States context, the current perception of democratic erosion — and questions about the extent of it (i.e., regime uncertainty) — limit the amount of moderation through electoral pressure. Inclusion is high, and extremist factions and candidates can enter the mainstream parties. And, arguably, the primary system and gerrymandering make it easier for mobilized grass-roots currents on the ideological extremes to control the party’s position. And moderation pressures are low due to regime uncertainty. Parties can use autocratic strategies of zero-sum institutional hardball for manipulating outcomes instead of moderating to gain electoral advantage65Bateman, David. 2022. “Elections, Polarization, and Democratic Resilience.” Chap. 14 in Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization?, eds. Robert C. Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth M. Roberts. Cambridge University Press.. These strategies, like voter repression (from restricted voter registration procedures, limiting voting access for registered voters, voter intimidation) and gerrymandering, move away from the democratic principle of citizens’ “preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government.”66Robert A. Dahl. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, New Haven.
Second, moderation is not happening because political parties initiating democratic erosion may be electorally popular.67In theory democracy provides built-in institutional safeguards against polarization and extremism through vertical accountability: parties and candidates who are too extreme are meant to lose elections when the bulk of the electorate is located in the “democratically responsible” center. But if the extremes become more numerous than the center, such vertical accountability breaks down, and there is no moderating power to electoral competition. They can be electorally popular because polarization and partisan interest trump democratic safeguarding.68Somer, Murat, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke. 2021. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization 28 (5): 929-948.69Svolik, Milan. 2020. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 15 (1): 3-31 Voters confront a choice between two valid but potentially competing concerns: democratic principles and partisan interests. Anti-democrats can be electorally successful when they succeed in transforming a country’s socio-economic tensions into axes of acute political conflict and then present supporters with a narrative for leadership to address those issues.70Svolik, Milan. 2020. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 15 (1): 3-31 And in contexts of regime uncertainty, anti-liberal democrats argue that they are preserving democracy, with polarization over the nature of majoritarian versus liberal democracy itself and who poses the real threat to it.71Slater, Dan. 2022. “Threats or Gains: The Battle Over Participation in America’s Careening Democracy.”The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 699 (1): 90-100.72Somer, Murat, Jennifer McCoy, and Ozlem Tuncel. 2022.“ Toward a New Transition Theory: Opposition Dilemmas and Countering Democratic Erosion.” APSA Preprints. doi: 10.33774/apsa-2022-nr4mz.
How to return to the promises of moderation?
Technical reforms to electoral democratic institutions to counter democratic backsliding and increase confidence in shared rules of the game, to guarantee greater voter confidence in the impact of the vote, and more equal weighting of votes in practice of governance, can increase electoral incentives to moderate and thus reduce zero-sum, polarizing, and autocratizing competition. Institutional, procedural, and behavioral concentration on voter rights, an equal playing field, and inclusive participation can (re)incentivize party moderation, decrease the size and strength of extremist factions, and limit anti-democratic strategies to concentrate power.73Bernaerts, Kamil, Benjamin Blanckaert, and Didier Caluwaerts. 2023. “Institutional Design and Polarization. Do Consensus Democracies Fare Better in Fighting Polarization than Majoritarian Democracies?.” Democratization 30 (2): 153-172.74Drutman, Lee. 2020. Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. New York: Oxford University Press.75McCoy, Jennifer and Benjamin Press. 2022. “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan 22. https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/01/18/what- happens-when-democracies-become-perniciously-polarized-pub-86190.
And from within parties, pro-democracy elites and activists cannot simply organize around protecting democracy as a set of rules, procedures, and values of participation and competition for their own sake. Pro-democracy elites struggle to articulate a coordinated, coherent message, but they must do more than to offer a restorative path to status quo ex ante of democratic practice. They must often address the societal grievances and aspirations that fed the popularity of elected autocratizers in the first place.76Allen, Danielle S. 2023. Justice by Means of Democracy. University of Chicago Press.77McCoy, Jennifer, and Murat Somer. 2021.“Overcoming Polarization.” Journal of Democracy 32 (1): 6-21.78Somer, Murat, Jennifer McCoy, and Ozlem Tuncel. 2022.“ Toward a New Transition Theory: Opposition Dilemmas and Countering Democratic Erosion.” APSA Preprints. doi: 10.33774/apsa-2022-nr4mz.
Pro-democracy opposition coalitions face coordination and communication challenges, and understanding these challenges and addressing them is a key step in creating the incentives and strategies for stemming democratic erosion. Research has argued that “moderate” responses to democratic erosion at critical initial stages of autocratization offer the best chances of stopping such erosion while radical responses tend to make things worse.79Cleary, Matthew and Aykut Öztür. 2022. When does backsliding lead to breakdown? Uncertainty and opposition strategies in democracies at risk. Perspectives on Politics 20 (1): 205-221.80Gamboa, Laura, 2017. Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela. Comparative Politics 49 (4):457-477.81Gamboa, Laura. 2022. Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press. The ultimate goal is to mobilize broad resistance to democratic erosion, build support around safeguarding and deepening democratic accountability and institutions, and such struggle can fortify democracy rather than limit it.82Mettler, Suzanne, and Robert C. Lieberman. 2020. Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.83Schedler, Andreas. 2019. “What Do We Know About Resistance to Democratic Subversion?”Annals of Comparative Democratization 17 (1): 4-7. Pro-democracy parties have two routes to stymie democratic subversion. One is extra-institutional: mobilizing repertoires like coups, protests, boycotts or strikes.84Gamboa, Laura. 2022. Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press. These strategies message a rejection of the established institutional mechanisms for reform and create a zero-sum game.85McAdam, Doug., 1999. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. University of Chicago Press. These strategies also minimize the costs of the incumbent to repress and limit opposition. They may limit democratic erosion but increase the potential of breaking democracy in other ways, and further polarize society, and potentially delegitimize the opposition itself.86Gamboa, Laura. 2022. Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press.
The other route is more gradual but institutionalized, to increase the costs of repressing opposition, by using and bolstering existing institutions such as electoral commissions, elections, legislation, courts, and the bureaucracy to safeguard against democratic erosion. By relying on the rules of the game and “proper” channels of conflict resolution, democracy is reinforced and elites are less threatened.87Gamboa, Laura. 2022. Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press. Parties alone cannot be expected to be defenders of democracy without electoral, strategic incentives and constraints. Such strategies can go so far as to try to remove the incumbent from current office, or remove threatening politicians from the ability to compete in future elections. Although these are potentially more disruptive and threatening reforms, they can remain in the realm of institutionalized channels and protect the legitimacy of the system of rules as channeled contestation. But the U.S. case shows how difficult it can be to wield democratic levers to check would-be autocrats when the latter are protected by a major party, often through ‘teamsmanship’ and institutional hardball to weaponize oversight and accountability mechanisms in partisan interest.
In the balance between extra-institutional and gradual institutional levers, many social mobilization groups and pro-democracy opposition actors themselves advocate radical responses, and they do so in ways that respond to the fundamental electoral popularity of a more socio-economic transformative agenda. To address the electoral appeal of the autocratizing incumbent, pro-democracy activists must recognize what threats are perceived as the opposite of democracy, and work to address those in their narratives and policies to build a more robust pro- democracy coalition.88Somer, Murat, Jennifer McCoy, and Ozlem Tuncel. 2022.“ Toward a New Transition Theory: Opposition Dilemmas and Countering Democratic Erosion.” APSA Preprints. doi: 10.33774/apsa-2022-nr4mz.
In order to reverse the pernicious polarization and strength of extremist factions that drive the willingness to vote for democracy-eroding incumbents, opposition actors have different tools at different stages. In the early stages, pro-democracy opposition coalitions can still use institutional levers.89Somer, Murat, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke. 2021. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization 28 (5): 929-948. These include the full range of “horizontal accountability mechanisms — judiciaries, legislatures, bureaucracies, as well as vertical and societal mobilization capacity from organized political and civil societies”90Somer, Murat, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke. 2021. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization 28 (5): 929-948. But in the later stages, these tools become more limited, because the institutions themselves become captured by autocratizing incumbents. Particularly in the U.S., a key institutional mechanism of horizontal accountability and deconcentration of power — federalism — has simultaneously been a means of sustaining unequal authoritarian enclaves.91Mickey, Robert. 2015. Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South, 1944-1972. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Recent comparative research on polarization and democratic erosion suggests that in later stages of more advanced and prolonged democratic erosion or enclaves, pro-democracy actors should “consider long- term ideological and programmatic goals, repolarizing and depolarizing strategies, and the instruments with which to implement them,” with particular attention to a transformative repolarization strategy that rebundles and redefines cleavages and politics along a new axis of polarization based on a pro-democratic program.92Somer, Murat, Jennifer L. McCoy, and Russell E. Luke. 2021. “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies.” Democratization 28 (5): 929-948. The construction of a transpartisan “regime” cleavage would provide a pact to safeguard democracy across pro-democratic actors on both sides of the partisan divide.93O’Donnell, Guillermo and Philippe C. Schmitter. 1986. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. A new democratic axis based on a pro-democratic program would offer social, economic, and political inclusion, to depolarize at the citizen level and offer more cross-cutting identity groups a channel to participate.Conclusion: Inter-Party Dynamics and Elite Compacts
Conclusion: Inter-Party Dynamics and Elite Compacts
Political elites may have personal, strategic interests to defect from democracy and/or may be ideologically opposed to institutionalized democracy (and suggest rule by the people as a populist anti-institutional alternative to institutionalized horizontal and vertical accountability).94Slater, Dan. 2013. “Democratic Careening.” World Politics 65 (4): 729-763.95Democratic careening or stepwise democratic subversion can both be described as political instability sparked by intense conflict between partisan actors deploying competing visions of democratic accountability. Careening often occurs when actors who argue that democracy requires substantial inclusivity of the entire populace (vertical accountability) clash with rivals who defend democracy for its constraints against excessive concentrations of unaccountable power, particularly in the political executive (horizontal accountability). Yet, across the world, abiding by the democratic rules of the game can often be in leaders’ best interest when elite pacts allow leaders from across the ideological and identity spectrum to have access to power, maximize personal security, and retain the right to compete in future rounds of competition.96Riedl, Rachel Beatty. 2022. “Africa’s Democratic Outliers.” Chap. 4 in Democracy in Hard Places, eds. Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. New York: Oxford University Press.97Friedman, Edward and Joseph Wong, eds. Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems: Learning to Lose. New York: Routledge, 2008. Political elites have incentives to maintain party organization and the specific rules of democratic electoral competition that brought them to power in the first instance, and to channel a continued elite status quo through participatory, inclusive institutional selection mechanisms that can sustain their (presumed) preference for high levels of political and economic inequality while maximizing order and stability within a democratic bargain.
Yet internal party divisions and factions — whether over identity or ideology — can disrupt this elite pact undergirding democratic regime stability.98Tudor, Maya and Sinha Roy. Forthcoming. “How Fractures in Democratic Ceilings Explain India’s Democratic Recessions.” Comparative Political Studies.. Political entrepreneurs seek to build their own personalist following, defect from within the party, and build an anti-system democracy “for the people” rather than through institutionalized mechanisms of horizontal accountability (checks and balances) or vertical accountability (free and fair elections that represent the will of the electorate). They do this either through transforming their existing party (as Orban and Erdogan have done in Hungary and Turkey), by capturing a party as an insurgent from outside (Donald Trump in the U.S.), or by creating a new movement party, particularly when mainstream parties have been discredited (Chavez, Correa, and Bolsonaro in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil).
Democratic subversion can occur when party leaders and their supporting factions have both the interest and capacity to pursue an anti-democratic program.99Svolik, Milan. 2020. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 15 (1): 3-31 In many instances, powerful executives may not have a specifically anti-democratic agenda, but may well be willing to bring democracy down or let it fail, in simple pursuit of self-interest.100Bermeo, Nancy G. 2003. Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.101Linz, Juan J. 1978. Crisis, Breakdown,and Reequilibration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.102Schedler, Andreas. 2019. “What Do We Know About Resistance to Democratic Subversion?”Annals of Comparative Democratization 17 (1): 4-7. Party organizations and accountability may act as constraints to limit such capacity. The constraints parties employ can depend in part upon their time horizons to maximize the long- term interests of the party over the short term interests of the party leader/executive.103Alesina, Alberto F., and Stephen E. Spear. 1987. “An overlapping generations model of electoral competition.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper No. 2354.
Parties can be stronger, more able to moderate their extreme wings, and more connected to their citizen representation function when institutional constraints reaffirm a level playing field (and thus reduce regime uncertainty), electoral practices tie ambitious personalist leaders to party priorities and time horizons (see Chapter 6 on primaries), and an inclusive, participatory, and pluralist approach to citizen participation channels diverse interests into party organizations. Building on institutional and strategic incentives to keep anti-democratic extremists out of power often relies on ideologically proximate actors (moderates within the same party) to distance such extremists from the levers of party control and political nominations. But high degrees of partisan polarization, such as the U.S. is currently experiencing, folds all social cleavages into one partisan dividing line, hardens loyalties, and prevents such distancing of the extreme factions from the levers of party power.104McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman and Murat Somer. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62 (1):16-42.105Svolik, Milan. 2020. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 15 (1): 3-31106Ziblatt, Daniel. 2017. Conservative Political Parties and the Birth of Modern Democracy in Europe. Cambridge University Press.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary”107Madison, James. 1788. Federalist 51. National Archives: Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-04-02-0199., much less political parties and moderating logics of competition. Because they are not, institutions, incentives, and norms must respond to the conditions of the moment. Institutions, regulations, and party procedures can shape political party moderation, reducing the extent of extremist factions, and increasing the pluralistic inclusion of a just democracy.108Allen, Danielle S. 2023. Justice by Means of Democracy. University of Chicago Press.109The need to change procedures of representation are particularly strong in the United States, with scholars calling for innovative reforms such as fusion ballots (Drutman 2022), deliberative dialogues (Fishkin 1991), democracy by citizen jury (Landemore 2020), and citizen assemblies to give input to elected party representatives (Fournier et al 2011). Social mobilization and normative support for democratic resilience can incentivize parties toward pro-democracy coalitions.110Putnam, Robert D. and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. 2021. The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. New York: Simon & Schuster.111Tarrow, Sidney. 2021. Movements and Parties. Cambridge University Press. Institutional and electoral considerations matter a great deal for the possibility of constraining party strategies and party leaders to remain in the democratic pact, restraining autocratic factions by providing tools, leverage, and partisan strategies to protect democracy, and channels for social mobilization to push parties toward democratic renewal.
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