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.

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