Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists


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A rally last September in Berlin for Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for German chancellor. Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.

These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.

On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.

Is it true?

Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.

I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions. (A copy of my working paper, with a more detailed analysis of the survey data, can be found here.)

Centrists Are the Most
Skeptical of Democracy

Percentage of people who say democracy is a “very good” political system.

100%

CENTRISTS

Far left

Far right

50%

Denmark

Sweden

Germany

Italy

Norway

Spain

Australia

New

Zealand

Austria

50%

Continent-wide, only 42 percent of centrists view democracy as a very good system.

Just 33 percent see it as a very good system.

Finland

France

Britain

European

average

United

States

Nether-

lands

Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures. These include views of democracy as the “best political system,” and a more general rating of democratic politics. In both, those in the center have the most critical views of democracy.

Centrists Are Least Likely to
Support Free and Fair Elections

Percentage of people who say that choosing a leader

in a free election is an “essential feature of democracy.”

100%

50%

Germany

Sweden

Australia

New

Zealand

Spain

United

States

Netherlands

Some of the most striking data reflect respondents’ views of elections. Support for “free and fair” elections drops at the center for every single country in the sample. The size of the centrist gap is striking. In the case of the United States, fewer than half of people in the political center view elections as essential.

Centrists Are Least Likely to
Support Liberal Institutions

Percentage of people who say civil rights that protect people’s liberty

from state oppression is an “essential feature of democracy.”

100%

50%

Sweden

Germany

Spain

Australia

Netherlands

New

Zealand

United

States

Of course, the concept of “support for democracy” is somewhat abstract, and respondents may interpret the question in different ways. What about support for civil rights, so central to the maintenance of the liberal democratic order? In almost every case, support for civil rights wanes in the center. In the United States, only 25 percent of centrists agree that civil rights are an essential feature of democracy.

Centrists Are Most Supportive
of Authoritarianism
(Except for the Far Right)

Percentage of people who say a strong leader who does not have to

bother with a legislature is “fairly good” or “very good.”

50%

Far right

Far left

CENTRISTS

Italy

Finland

Denmark

Germany

Norway

New

Zealand

Sweden

Austria

Australia

50%

Continent-wide, 38 percent of centrists approve of strongman leaders.

40 percent approve.

France

Britain

United

States

Nether-

lands

Spain

European

average

One of the strongest warning signs for democracy has been the rise of populist leaders with authoritarian tendencies. But while these leaders have become more popular, it is unclear whether citizens explicitly support more authoritarian styles of government. I find, however, evidence of substantial support for a “strong leader” who ignores his country’s legislature, particularly among centrists. In the United States, centrists’ support for a strongman-type leader far surpasses that of the right and the left.

Percentage of Americans who support strongman leaders.

40

40%

30

28

20

16

Far left

Centrist

Far right

10

1995-

98

1999-

2004

2005-

09

2010-

14

1995-

98

1999-

2004

2005-

09

2010-

14

1995-

98

1999-

2004

2005-

09

2010-

14

What Does It Mean?

Across Europe and North America, support for democracy is in decline. To explain this trend, conventional wisdom points to the political extremes. Both the far left and the far right are, according to this view, willing to ride roughshod over democratic institutions to achieve radical change. Moderates, by contrast, are assumed to defend liberal democracy, its principles and institutions.

The numbers indicate that this isn’t the case. As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism — least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.

Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center: From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth. Could the same thing happen in mature democracies like Britain, France and the United States?