Large numbers of Americans want a strong, rough, anti-democratic leader
Published in News & Features
It might be comforting to think that American democracy has made it past the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. But our research shows that a wide range of the American people, of all political stripes, seek leaders who are fundamentally anti-democratic.
It’s true that many who participated in the insurrection are facing consequences, including prison time. Many candidates for state office who falsely claimed that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election lost their races. And the congressional committee investigating the insurrection voted to refer Trump to the Department of Justice for criminal charges.
But more than 100 members of Congress who objected to the results of a free and fair election won their reelection campaigns. And at least seven people who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 have been elected to state legislatures and two have been elected to Congress.
As scholars interested in how committed citizens are to democracy, we wanted to measure whether regular Americans want someone who will abide by democratic traditions and practices or dispense with them.
Using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 respondents, we found that a large proportion of Americans are willing to support leaders who would violate democratic principles.
About two decades ago, an important study found that roughly 1 in 4 Americans supported leaders who are uncompromising and take decisive action. These people said they would also prefer nonelected experts to make decisions. Our study replicates this finding nearly 20 years later but sheds light on a troubling reason for this preference.
At the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation, we, with our former student Candaisy Crawford, asked people about their willingness to support leaders who promised to protect them by any means necessary, even if that meant violating expected standards of behavior in a democracy, a set of principles often called “democratic norms.” We developed these questions based on existing research about the strategies that leaders with anti-democratic tendencies use to build public support.
In Venezuela, for instance, democratic decline happened gradually. Early on, Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez was known for using nationalist language and calling opponents epithets like “rancid oligarchs” and “squealing pigs.” Later, he blacklisted those who sought his removal from office through a democratically conducted referendum. Eventually, he went further, arresting and exiling his political opponents.
These types of tactics have also been used in other nations, such as Turkey and Hungary, by leaders who rose to power through democratic elections.
In our study, we asked about behaviors that foreshadow the early stages of democratic decline. For example, we asked citizens whether they thought that “the only way our country can solve its current problems is by supporting tough leaders who will crack down on those who undermine American values.” We also asked about explicit violations of democratic principles, like shutting down news organizations and “bending the rules to get things done.”