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Why voters who value democracy participate in democratic backsliding


Around the world, citizens are voting away the democracies they claim to cherish. Here we present evidence that this behaviour is driven in part by the belief that their opponents will undermine democracy first. In an observational study (N = 1,973), we find that US partisans are willing to subvert democratic norms to the extent that they believe opposing partisans are willing to do the same. In experimental studies (N = 2,543, N = 1,848), we revealed to partisans that their opponents are more committed to democratic norms than they think. As a result, the partisans became more committed to upholding democratic norms themselves and less willing to vote for candidates who break these norms. These findings suggest that aspiring autocrats may instigate democratic backsliding by accusing their opponents of subverting democracy and that we can foster democratic stability by informing partisans about the other side’s commitment to democracy.

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Fig. 1: Exaggerated misperceptions of opposing partisans’ commitment to democracy (study 1).
Fig. 2: The relationship between respondents’ willingness to subvert democracy and their perception that opposing partisans support subverting democracy (study 1).
Fig. 3: Experimental flow in the treatment condition (study 2).
Fig. 4: Reducing perceptions of opposing partisan willingness to subvert democracy (study 2).
Fig. 5: Lowering perceptions that other party will subvert democracy generates more support for democratic norms (study 2a).
Fig. 6: Lowering perceptions that the other party will subvert lowers support for candidates who subvert democracy (study 2b).
Fig. 7: Wave 1 ask–tell treatment effect on wave 2 support for subverting democracy by treatment condition and by hours since treatment (study 3).
Fig. 8: Lowering perceptions that the other party will subvert in wave 1 lowers support for candidates who subvert democracy in wave 2 (study 3).

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Data availability

Replication data for the main text and Supplementary Information are available at (ref. 71). Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

Replication code for the main text and Supplementary Information is available at


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For helpful feedback, we thank C. Amat, L. Barden-Hair, J. Barker, A. Berinsky, C. Bicalho, J. Chu, D. Bischof, D. Broockman, J. Druckman, S. Fish, J. Fishkin, M. Graham, A. Guess, K. Hansen, C. Hosam, S. Hyde, H. Jefferson, M. Kagan, J. Krosnick, M. Landau-Wells, N. Malhotra, A. Matanock, J. Mernyk, C. Mo, E. Moro, J. Pan, S. Pink, D. Rand, C. Redekopp, E. Schickler, R. Slothus, N. Stagnaro, J. Voelkel, R. Willer, A. Wojtanik, A. Yan and S. S. You. We also thank J. Levy for research assistance. We also thank Aarhus University, Aletheia, MIT Connection Science, the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group, the Stanford Communications Department, the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab, the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, the UC Berkeley Political Science Department, the Broockman-Lenz Lab, the International Conference on Computational Social Science (IC2S2 2020), the Bridging Divides & Strengthening Democracy Conference (2022), the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference (SPSP 2023), the Association for Psychological Science (APS 2023), and the American Political Science Association (APSA 2023). Funding for this study was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (A.P.) and the University of California, Berkeley (G.L.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.B. developed the concept and designed studies 1 and 2a. A.B. and G.S.L. collaborated on the design of studies 2b and 3. A.B. and G.S.L. fielded the studies, performed the final analysis, constructed the figures and wrote the paper. G.S.L., D.A., H.R. and A.P. supervised studies 1 and 2a, and G.S.L. supervised studies 2b and 3.

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Correspondence to Alia Braley.

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Braley, A., Lenz, G.S., Adjodah, D. et al. Why voters who value democracy participate in democratic backsliding. Nat Hum Behav 7, 1282–1293 (2023).

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