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Rationalizing Democracy: The Perceptual Bias and (Un)Democratic Behavior

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Democracy often confronts citizens with a dilemma: stand firm on democracy while losing out on policy or accept undemocratic behavior and gain politically. Existing literature demonstrates that citizens generally choose the latter - and that they do so deliberately. Yet there is an alternative possibility. Citizens can avoid this uncomfortable dilemma altogether by rationalizing their understandings of democracy. When a politician advances undesired policies without violating democratic rules and norms, people find ways to perceive the behavior as undemocratic. When a politician acts undemocratically to promote desired policies, citizens muster up arguments for considering it democratic. Original survey experiments in the United States, and 22 democracies worldwide, provide strong support for this argument. It is thus not deliberate acceptance, but a fundamentally different perceptual logic that drives the widespread approval of undemocratic behavior in today's democracies.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Pages (from-to)474-496
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - May 2023

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