Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2022

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Political Science

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Why do voters support backsliding incumbents? Under what conditions are voters more permissive to backsliding? In recent years, scholars have been interested in what leads to voters to support backsliding incumbents where we should expect them to be sanctioned and generally these answers have been focused on partisanship and polarization. I build on this literature by arguing that societal threat reduces the negative evaluation of backsliding actions and highlights the need for competent leaders to protect against future crisis. I develop an original formal model that considers the different strategies available to backsliding incumbents and shows that societal threat benefits backsliders most when they have a competence advantage. Otherwise, societal threat can work against them, and given the ability to increase societal threat salience, they will not do so. I empirically verify a conclusion of the model that higher societal threat leads to more democratic backsliding for some types of threat. This research has implications for the persistence of backsliding incumbents and the prospects of removal.

What does the opposition do after democratic backsliding? Much of the backsliding literature has been focused on the rise and persistence of backsliding governments, but less focus has been placed on what happens after these governments leave power. The democratization literature has some helpful expectations for successor behavior, but a newer framework is needed because backsliding countries are different from autocracies. I use an original formal model to rigorously explore when a successor to an initial backslider either prioritizes restoring democratic institutions and norms, or uses weakened institutions to pursue policy priorities and maintain power. I show that three main factors drive this decision: the durability of restorative measures, the magnitude of the subverted institutions, and the electoral safety of a successor. When restorative measures are not durable, a successor never benefits from restoring institutions. When restoration is durable, more severely subverted institutions make maintaining backsliding less appealing to a successor. Electoral safety impacts different kinds of backsliding differently: restoring executive constraints is less advantageous as electoral safety rises, but the reverse is true for restoring free and fair elections. This study provides an understanding of both the choices of successors and the prospects for long term democratic resurgence after a single instance of backsliding.

How does backsliding affect voters' preference for democratic institutions? Most of the literature on voters' acquiescence to backsliding focuses on the initial infraction and electoral efforts of backsliding incumbents, but less is known about how the preferences among those who did not support the incumbent are affected. I consider how the severity of backsliding enacted by an incumbent of the opposite party affects voters' preferences for or against backsliding when deployed by their own party. I posit that voters consider the trade-off between backsliding from their \textit{preferred} leaders and the policies enacted. When voters are more focused on policy, especially after more extreme backsliding actions, they are more likely to support their leaders retaliating against the initial backslider. This makes restoration unlikely because of incentives that produce a cycle of retaliation which can set the stage for democratic failure. I evaluate the theory using an original survey experiment in the United States, a country that has recently replaced a backsliding incumbent. I found that respondents were more likely to prefer a retaliating candidate when the previous administration enacted more extreme backsliding. Expectations with respect to partisanship were not supported by the survey experiment. This study has implications for the prospects of either democratic resurgence or democratic failure in post-backsliding states.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Randall Calvert

Committee Members

Brian Crisp