Can somebody please untangle this one for us? Are centrists more, or less, supportive of democracy, compared to political extremists?

OK, this is a nice juicy problem for a political science student . . .

Act 1: “Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists”

David Adler writes in the New York Times:

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.

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.

I don’t quite know why Australia and New Zealand are in with the European countries on the above graph, or why the Netherlands is sitting there next to the United States, and I wouldn’t recommend displaying this information in the form of bar graphs, but in any case you get the picture, so the graph does its job. Adler shows similar patterns for other survey responses, and his full article is here.

Act 2: “It’s radicals, not centrists, who are really more hostile to democracy”

Matthijs Rooduijn responds in the Washington Post:

Can [the claim that centrists are the most hostile to democracy] be right? That depends on how you define “centrist.” Adler relies on what citizens say about their own ideology. . . . But do these self-characterizations represent how moderate or radical they are? I looked beyond how people describe their left-right position and assessed their actions and beliefs. That reveals something different: The people who vote for radical parties and who hold radical views on those parties’ issues are the ones more skeptical of and less satisfied with democracy. . . .

How people describe their own left-right position isn’t a very accurate way of distinguishing among those who are in the moderate ideological center and those who are more radical.

To illustrate, I’ll focus on the radical right. Let me stress, however, that you would see similar patterns among the radical left.

Here I’m defining the radical right as a family of parties that endorse “nativism” — i.e., the belief that the homogeneous nation-state is threatened by “dangerous others” such as immigrants or people of another race. Examples include the Front National in France and the League in Italy. Various studies have shown that those who vote for such parties mainly do so because they hold anti-immigrant attitudes. . . .

Why does the traditional left-right self-identification scale fail to distinguish moderates from radicals? That’s because the categories of far left, far right, and center include very broad groups of respondents.

To make this clear, let’s look at those who vote for radical right parties and those who endorse those parties’ attitudes. In the analyses below, I use the European Social Survey (ESS), which has more recent information than the WVS and EVS.

Of those who voted for a radical right party, about 43 percent — a plurality — place themselves in the center. We get a similar result when we look at who holds the most negative attitude toward immigrants: About 48 percent — again, a plurality — call themselves centrists.

In other words, many self-identified centrists aren’t moderates at all, once you look at how they vote and what they believe. . . .

So let’s discard left-right self-placement for now. Instead, we’ll assess whether someone is radical right or moderate by looking at how he or she votes and what he or she believes on the radical right’s main issue: immigration.

Again, a bar plot!? But, again, the graph does the job so I won’t harp on it. Rooduijn shows something similar using opposition to immigration as a predictor of anti-democratic attitudes. He concludes:

When we look at voting behavior and ideological beliefs, radicals feel it’s less important to live in a democratically governed country and are less satisfied with how their own democracy works than do those in the center.

Act 3: Whassup?

OK, how do we reconcile these findings? Rooduijn argues that the problem is with self-declared ideology, but I don’t know about that, for a couple of reasons. First, you can be far-right or far-left ideologically and not vote for a particular far-right or far-left party: perhaps you disagree with them on key issues, or maybe you don’t want to waste your vote on a fringe candidate, or maybe you object to the party’s corruption, for example. Second, even if “centrist” is just a label that people give themselves, it still seems surprising that people who give themselves this label are dissing democracy: I could see a centrist being dissatisfied with the current politically polarized environment, but it’s surprising for me to see them wanting to get rid of the entire system. Third, I’d expect to see a correlation between left-right position and satisfaction with the political system, but with this correlation varying depending on who’s in power. If your party’s in power, you’re more likely to trust the voters, no? But there could be some exceptions: for example, Trump is president even though his opponent got more votes, so it could be a coherent position to support Trump but be unhappy with the democratic process.

My other concern involves data. Adler has approximately 50% of Europeans viewing democracy as a “very good” political system; from Rooduijn’s polls, over 90% of Europeans think it important to live in a democratically governed country. Sure, these are different questions, but the proportions are sooooo different, it makes me wonder how to compare results from these different surveys.

Act 4: Here’s where you come in.

So, there’s a lot going on here. I’d’ve thought that moderates—whether self-described or as defined based on their voting patterns or their issue attitudes—would be more supportive of democracy, as asked in various ways, than extremists.

Adler found moderates to be less supportive of democracy—but, to me, the big thing was that he found democracy as a whole to not be so popular, in this set of democratic countries that he studied.

Rooduijn found what I’d consider a more expected result: democracy is overwhelmingly popular, perhaps slightly less so among people who hold extreme views or vote for extreme parties on the left or right.

Based on my expectations, I’d think that Rooduijn’s conclusion is more plausible. But Adler has some convincing graphs. I’ve not looked at these data myself, at all.

So here’s where you come in. Download the survey data—all publicly available, I believe—and reanalyze from scratch to figure out what’s going on.

Here are some suggestions to get started:

– Look at the averages and maybe the distributions of responses to questions asked on a 0-10 scale, rather than throwing away information by cutting off at a threshold.

– Analyze each country separately, then make scatterplots where each dot is a country.

– Break up the U.S. into separate regions, treat each one like a “country” in this scatterplot.

– Include in your analysis the party in power when the survey was conducted. (Recall this story.)

OK, go off and do it! This would be a great project for a student in political science, and it’s an important topic.

32 thoughts on “Can somebody please untangle this one for us? Are centrists more, or less, supportive of democracy, compared to political extremists?

    • Similar issue in that according to that analysis thinking that climate scientists rather than elected officials (or that scientists rather than politicians should be making key decisions on vaccine policies) should be more important in policy decisions makes you anti-democratic.

  1. ……”OK, this is a nice juicy problem for a political science student . . .”

    >> and it still remains clear as mud after above brief discussion

    standard labels (centrist, radical, moderate, left/right, etc) are too vague for objective analysis — so we end up with tons of tangled, unhelpful, subjective analysis.

    and above embrace of “democracy” as the objective benchmark of rational political ideology is a highly biased standard for analysis.
    ‘Democracy’ (majority rule) is fundamentally a Leftist (collectivist) ideology; its polar opposite is ‘Individualism’ (e.g., libertarian-type) ideology.

    What are the core ideological principles of a “Centrist” or “Moderate” — they have no idea themselves, nor do those attempting to analyze them.

    • Dellmar:

      I said it was a nice juicy problem, not that it was an easy problem. The challenge is to put together the information from the different survey responses on issue attitudes, self-declared ideology, party identification, etc. Adler’s original article was helpful in pointing out an interesting pattern, but from there you want to do more than look at averages and run regressions; there has to be some integration of the different sorts of information. Politics is multidimensional, and I don’t think it makes sense to identify democracy as a “leftist” idea. Back in 1789, sure, democracy was a leftist idea, but nowadays there are many different flavors of democracy.

  2. I think these terms (leftists, rightists, centrists, etc ) so often amateurish & poorly contextual. Identity itself so complicated. Samuel Huntingt did a decent job of delineating ‘identity ‘ in the 1st few chapters in his book Who Are We. I can post criteria later this evening.

  3. Is it a case of the “garden of forking paths”? There are so many ways to divide left/right (self identification, voting pattern, key issue like immigration etc.) There are also many ways to measure support of democracy and dichotomize the measures. One can think that democracy is the best system but still not very good. Would that qualify as being hostile to democracy?

  4. It seems slightly odd to define being “far right” simply based on one’s position on immigration. In Denmark the center left party has basically embraced the restrictionism introduced by the right parties. In Japan restrictions on immigration would be the norm. Would nearly everyone in those countries be “far right”?

      • I hold that ‘identity’ is situational, a frame I gleaned from Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We. So it’s through that frame that I might try to conceive labels like ‘centrist’, ‘rightist’, ‘leftist, ‘liberal’ ‘conservative’. It’s awkward though b/c any combination of categories, in a given a situation/context, can elicit a different label.

        However, as mentioned earlier, I also find that these labels defy the contexts in which they are raised. I like the following breakdown of the sources of identity b/c they better reflect what shape attitudes, beliefs, and relational ties. The ones listed in the Adler article reflect, imo, the popularity of terms, [like centrist, rightist, etc] through the 90s. I haven’t heard these labels used much by Millennials for example. The following breakdown comes into play more vigorously.

        1. Ascriptive: such as age, ancestry, gender, kin, ethnicity, and race;
        2. Cultural: ” ” clan, tribe, ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, civilization;
        3. Territorial: ” ” neighborhood, village, town, city, province, state, section, country, geographical area; continent, hemispheres
        4. Political: ” ” faction, clique, leader, interest group, movement, cause, party, ideology, state;
        5. Economic: ” ” job, occupation, profession, work group, employer, industry, economic sector, labor union, class
        6. Social: ” ” friends, club, team, colleagues, leisure group, status;

        Who Are We, p. 27

  5. I agree with Andrew’s remark that the questions are quite different.

    If someone asked me ‘do you consider democracy to be “a very good system”‘ I would truthfully answer answer “no”‘ and if someone asked me how important is it to live in a democratically governed country I would truthfully answer “very important” (as the alternatives are likely to be even less appealing). So it seems possible that the large apparant discrepancy stems from a difference in the wording of the questions.

  6. Attitude researchers (and political beliefs have a strong attitudinal/evaluative component) distinguish between ambivalence and indifference – both of which can occupy the middle ground of a bipolar attitude/evaluation scale together with true centrists. There are however important differences between ambivalence and indifference (e.g., people who are ambivalent about blood and organ donation are far more likely to donate blood or organs than those who are indifferent). Extending this to the case under consideration, ambivalence would be represented by both positive and negative evaluations of both left and right (e.g., “both sides make some good points but I also disagree with a lot of their positions”), while indifference would be represented by neither positive nor negative evaluations of both left and right (“I don’t care about of follow politics enough to have any strong opinion on anything”). I could certainly see how one or even both of these subsets of people occupying this supposed “neutral” ground might be open to authoritarianism because of a general disdain for both sides of the political spectrum. Ideally, of course you’d measure political position a little more carefully than with the use of a single item.

    • I really think that equating “not saying very good” with “hostile” shows a serious problem with understanding language not to mention attitude surveys. With a Likert scale using a bar chart like this is really missing every strength of that kind of measurement and pretending that the question was “Do you think democracy is a very good system of government?” rather than a neutral prompt with probably a 5 point scale is really misleading. Also displaying the results as a bar chart is just wrong, at minimum it should be a stacked bar chart and then there can be a discussion about if you offset them to show the group mean.

      This report based on the European Social Survey (ESS) shows how to think about some of this in a more serious way.

      • elin:
        By stacked bar chart, you mean adding up to 100% with 5 colors?

        was elin’s objection the same as your objection to the use of bar charts?

  7. > Second, even if “centrist” is just a label that people give themselves, it still seems surprising that people who give themselves this label are dissing democracy: I could see a centrist being dissatisfied with the current politically polarized environment, but it’s surprising for me to see them wanting to get rid of the entire system.

    I wouldn’t say that people who consider democracy “good” (rather than “very good”) are dissing democracy and want to get rid of the entire system.

  8. The histograms look like they have been ordered by the percentage of centrists who support Democracy. Oz and NZ are in amongst the Europeans because their centrists hold similar views to centrists from Europe. The Netherlands is out on it’s own because their centrists are even more extreme than those in the USA.

  9. I second the comments of Dellmar and Wonks Anonymous.

    The terms being bandied about are hopelessly murky and the expected relationships far from obvious.

    Worse, both the Adler and Rooduijn articles have a layer of ideology slathered on top. These are after all, OPINION pieces.

    Rooduijn shares the tendency of many opinionators to characterize what he dislikes as “extreme”. He says “I’m defining the radical right as a family of parties that endorse ‘nativism’ — i.e., the belief that the homogeneous nation-state is threatened by ‘dangerous others’ such as immigrants or people of another race.” Note that he characterizes this as “anti-immigrant”. He could just as easily characterize his position as “anti-native” and therefore “extreme” or “radical”.

    And then Rooduijn has pathetically weak evidence to support his conclusion (the last bar chart in the post above). When we use HIS (suspiciously arbitrary) definition of support for democracy (a rating of the importance of democracy >= 6/10), then 93% of “mainstream” people support democracy, but support for democracy plummets all the way to 89% and 90% among “radicals” — a whopping 3%-4% difference. Let that sink in a little.

    Then, from these anemic results, mighty takeaways grow. A tiny (and suspicious) difference in the frequency of support for democracy is headlined as “It’s radicals, not centrists, who are really more hostile to democracy”, which the average reader hears as “the radical right hates democracy”.

    I don’t think it is worth wasting one’s time on these essays. As soon as you see they are opinion pieces in a newspaper, you can pretty much dismiss them as dishonest motivated reasoning.

  10. You write that:

    “Of those who voted for a radical right party, about 43 percent — a plurality — place themselves in the center. We get a similar result when we look at who holds the most negative attitude toward immigrants: About 48 percent — again, a plurality — call themselves centrists.”

    This may miss a broader political shift. On continental Europe, many centrists now believe – and openly state, which is comparatively new e.g. in Germany – that there has been too much immigration too fast recently, and that the immigration process needs to be slowed down.

    Also, many centrists now regard immigration as a very important topic, so they may vote for far right parties even though they don’t buy into a broader “Nativist” worldview, or the rest of their policy platforms.

    Possibly such voters realize that putting a radical right party in parliament may have the desired effect on national immigration policy, without at the same time affecting any other important policy areas (e.g. education policy, health policy, environmental policy) on which those groups would have little influence, either in opposition or as part of a ruling coalition.

    Finally, it’s worth remembering that not everyone in Europe who thinks immigration policy requires an overhaul is racist or ignorant or poor. It just happens that the only parties that reflect their policy preferences on this issue area are full of racists and nutters.

  11. I can’t help but feel that centrists are disillusioned with democracy because you end up with this situation where politicians spend more time and money on making sure their party wins than they seem to spend on achieving anything. 2 years out of a 4 year term spent on campaigning, gerrymandering, pleasing their supporters, etc. Scrapping policies where EVERYONE WINS to keep aligned with the views of their supporters.

    In my state we just bought a bunch of trains for about 10x what the exact same train would have cost if there wasn’t a change of government about 6 years ago because the incoming government scrapped the purchase order for them, then later accepted that we needed them(after the original production plant had been shut down). I think centrists would like the media to ease their stranglehold on politics and for important decisions to be made by panels of genuine experts, rather than whichever wonk is in gov and doesn’t have a portfolio to manage yet. That turned ranty. :< /rant

  12. Besides the comments on the outdated characterizations of far-left and far-right, I must say that what the far-left understands as ‘democracy’. In fact, the concept of democracy is only inspired by the greek one, since it has suffured many mutations along time. I think the far-left notion of democracy is the one which is closest to what you can read in greek books like Politics by Aristotle, or Republic by Plato. In fact, in my country, a far-left MP once said that north Korea was democracy. This happen not more than 10 years ago. I wonder if the far-right doesn’t also uses a modified definition of democracy?

  13. I associate identifying as a “centrist” most strongly with being in favor of the status quo. That being the case I couldn’t be less surprised that self-described centrists are the least likely to support democracy. Centrists are concerned about populist political movements opposing the status quo from both the left and the right. They can see that a majority of people are not in fact happy with the status quo, which combined with their by definition support for the status quo implies an inherent conflict with democracy.

    TL:DR; When the people want change those who support the status quo have an incentive to oppose democracy.

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