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Does Elite Rhetoric Undermine Democratic Norms?

2019-2020 SCAD Graduate Fellow Katie Clayton shares insights from her SCAD-sponsored research. Her findings were featured in articles by the Wall Street Journal and Vox.

Democratic stability depends on widespread acceptance of informal norms that govern political elites’ behavior. Little is known, however, about elites’ capacity to influence popular support for or enforcement of democratic norms, including respect for the election process and the outcomes it produces. This project examines the extent to which elite rhetoric can erode democratic norms in the contemporary United States, where President Trump has frequently challenged or disregarded standards of behavior for elected leaders—most notably, by repeatedly attacking the integrity of the 2020 presidential election and refusing to commit to the peaceful transfer of power (e.g., Crowley 2020, Volz and Glazer 2020).

Observers worry that norm violations have become so familiar under Trump that they have become normalized or the public has grown desensitized (e.g., Jentleson 2019, Klaas 2020), mirroring effects that have been found after repeated exposure to norm violations or aversive stimuli in other contexts (e.g., Bartholomew, Bustin, and Sestir 2006, Bicchieri 2016). Though concerns like these are widespread, no research to date has estimated the causal effect of extended exposure to violations of democratic norms by an elected leader. We therefore conducted a panel survey experiment evaluating the effects of randomized over-time exposure to statements from President Trump attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Our survey experiment included four waves, with the experimental intervention taking place in the second and third waves (Wave 1 was a baseline survey and Wave 4 was an endline survey). Participants who accepted the invitation to the Wave 2 survey were randomized into one of the four treatment conditions. The experimental treatments are images of real tweets by Donald Trump excluding their original date stamp and any additional media. We selected these materials using a pre-specified protocol in which 261 candidate tweets—including many previously identified as election norm violations by subject matter experts—were rated by respondents on Lucid for whether they followed or departed from past practices by American presidents and whether their topic is U.S. elections or some other topic.
All respondents viewed twenty tweets from President Trump in Wave 2 and twenty in Wave 3. Ten tweets that were unrelated to elections and did not violate democratic norms were fixed across conditions in each wave to increase realism. The other ten tweets in the treatment waves were randomized by condition, with 1⁄6 of respondents viewing placebo tweets that do not violate democratic norms and are unrelated to elections, 1⁄6 of respondents viewing placebo tweets that do not violate democratic norms and are related to elections (these two conditions were ultimately pooled and served as the baseline category in our analyses), 1⁄3 of respondents viewing tweets that violate democratic norms and are unrelated to elections, and 1⁄3 of respondents viewing tweets that violate democratic norms and are related to elections.
In all four waves, we measured respondents’ trust and confidence in elections, their respect for democratic norms related to elections, their perceptions of past practices by American presidents (to test the mechanism of normalization), and their emotional reactions to norm violations (to test the mechanism of desensitization). In just Wave 1 and Wave 4, we also measured support for political violence and for democratic government.
We find that attacks on election integrity do not measurably change support for political violence or belief in democracy. However, exposure to Trump’s rhetoric erodes trust and confidence in elections and increases the belief that elections are rigged among his supporters. By contrast, we find no evidence for normalization or desensitization; perceptions of past practices by political leaders and emotional reactions to norm violations do not change measurably in response to norm-violating rhetoric.
This study offers the first causal estimates of the effects of Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric on the mass public’s commitment to democracy. Norms are typically thought to constrain the behavior of elites (Helmke and Levitsky 2004), but when elites are unconstrained and violate norms, their supporters respond accordingly. Just as elites can shape policy views along partisan lines (Lenz 2013), elite rhetoric can shape normative beliefs in core democratic values such as confidence in elections and support for peaceful transfers of power. These findings do not indicate that elites can erode democratic norms easily or that the effects of norm violations will be uniform across the entire population. However, at least for a politician’s supporters, support of democratic norms appears to be more fragile than previously assumed, creating a potential risk to acceptance of unfavorable election results.