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Book Talk: The Role of Citizens in Democratic Backsliding—and Resilience

June 02, 2023
Sara Goodman

Talking Policy Podcast
Sara Wallace Goodman.

Is democracy as a system of government and a social principle under threat? Seventy percent of the global population now lives either in non-democratic countries, or in countries that are experiencing democratic backsliding. In this final episode in Talking Policy’s spring 2023 series on the future of democracy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Sara Wallace Goodman about how ordinary people respond when their democracy is under threat. Sara, a professor of political science at UC Irvine and member of IGCC’s Future of Democracy initiative, shares findings from her book Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat. This interview was recorded on May 26, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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In your book, Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat, you look at how partisanship shapes how citizens respond to threats in three countries: the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. One of the core arguments of your book is that citizenship is a foundation of stable democracy in that it binds people together behind common goals and gives the government legitimacy in governing to advance those goals. What is citizenship? And specifically, what is citizenship in a democracy?

Citizenship, on the one hand, is our identity. It is the thing that attaches us to the political system. Sometimes people think about their citizenship as a passport, especially if they had to work to obtain citizenship. If, however, you were born a U.S. citizen, it’s something we don’t think about a lot. It may be something that we only think about when it’s election day.

So, on the one hand, it’s a passport, it’s a status, but it’s also a set of norms—it’s expectations that we have about our role in politics. Citizens aren’t just passive recipients of what happens [in a country]. We exist in the system—we legitimize it, as you said. The expectations we have about who we are, what we do, and what values we maintain are an important part of the democratic story.

In the context of American democracy, what are some of the shared values that we might have as American citizens?

People maintain different definitions of what it means to be a good citizen. In the U.S., maybe you think being a good citizen means buying ethical products. Maybe you think being a good citizen is signing up to serve in the military. You can imagine all sorts of different definitions. I argue that there are sufficient overlaps [such] that we have some common understanding of our obligation. Among the items I asked about [in my research] are some behaviors: Does a good citizen vote? Do good citizens keep watch on the government or stay informed about what’s happening? Does a good citizen join associations or participate in protests? There are some behaviors in there and there are some values. We’re a liberal democracy so we want citizens to adhere to some values of liberalism. It’s important to respect the opinions of people, even if you don’t agree with them, right? Is it important to maintain friendships when you disagree? These [are the] kinds of values we associate with pluralism and tolerance, which taps into national identity, which can be a subcomponent of citizenship norms. Other things like: Do you speak English? Do you feel American? Are you patriotic? Those dimensions are more immutable compared to the other sets of values. When you ask Americans, some people agree with some, and not others, but you do see that there are sufficient overlaps and behaviors and liberal values. That’s an important part of the story for establishing the foundation of shared goals.

In reading your descriptions of what citizenship means in the book, my first reaction was: does anyone really think about citizenship this way—this thoughtfully and expansively? We are not all sitting around reading Aristotle. And in the three countries that are the subject of your book, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, voters in recent years have voted for parties or candidates that are unsupportive of at least some of the key tenants of liberal democracy. This begs the question: what are the discrepancies between the ideal of citizenship and what is actually happening in the messy real world that we all live in?

You’re right, we’re not all sitting around reading Aristotle—myself included. In the book, I wanted to try and make these items less academic and think about what are the values people actually hold without connecting them directly to liberalism or Hobbes. I don’t think people think about civility, but they think about their friends or their uncle who has crazy views, and he’s coming for dinner, and I’m going to be polite and not call him out. Those kinds of behaviors represent values, even if we don’t think of them that way.

Now, there are democracies that don’t have people who believe in or value democracy as a regime type. That is always the case. There are always people within systems that do not agree with or comply with that system. January 6th is the perfect example. A lot of people woke up to the notion that you can have democracy without democrats on that day.

What do you do about that? We accept that by living in a liberal democracy, in a marketplace of ideas, that illiberal ideas exist. An important role that researchers play is to identify why those ideas exist. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that non-democratic values exist within democracies, and so pragmatically, our choices are either to ignore them or confront them.

How do norms of citizenship vary across countries?

It was really important for me to look at the United States from a comparative perspective, because although our problems feel acutely unique here, we are not the only country experiencing democratic backsliding. One of the democratic threats I look at is foreign interference in elections, and we are hardly the only country to have been subjected to this kind of interference from Russia.

We would expect democratic values to be broadly popular in democracies, and we should expect that citizens in the United Kingdom have similar liberal democratic values as citizens in the United States. We might also expect differences when it comes to national belonging, because countries have different citizenship traditions, different understandings of civic versus ethnic concepts of national belonging.

Broadly, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, citizens exhibit really similar values when it comes to the behaviors they expect of citizens and the values they expect citizens to have. There are differences when it comes to national belonging. So, for instance, in the United Kingdom and in Germany, you see that patriotism is a really low-rated factor—that is, being patriotic or proud of your country isn’t considered a strong dimension of being a good citizen, whereas it is one of the strongest and widely shared items in the United States. Conversely, in the United Kingdom and in Germany, speaking the national language is a very strong component of being a good citizen. Whereas in the United States, language is a much more moderately rated item.

Before we go on to the second core argument of your book, can you remind us, what is the social contract? What is this idea and why is it good?

A social contract is an idea. It’s implicit in the United States. In places like France, it’s actually very explicit. In the United States, it’s an implicit agreement among members of society to cooperate. Essentially, we give up a degree of freedom, and in exchange, we cooperate on things and we have certain protections. So we have a social contract among each other and we also enter into a contract with the state. This is Hobbes’ understanding of it, we give up certain liberties, certain freedoms in exchange for certain rights and protections. We can think of citizenship as an institutionalized reflection of that, where the individual, the citizen, owes duties to the state and receives rights in exchange. Conversely, the state also has a duty to the citizens and has certain rights that they get from the individual. The state gets legitimation, the citizen gets rights. The state has to provide things to citizens, and citizens have to give loyalty, maybe service, and maybe maintain rule of law. In Charles Tilly’s definition, it is transactional—both sides get and give.

The second core argument of your book is that when citizens respond to democratic threats in a partisan way, according to whatever they think will benefit their side, this threatens democracy. In your research, how do people respond to threats to democracy? How do citizens even know there’s a threat? Do people understand threats in a uniform way?

There are always threats to democracy. If it wasn’t the Soviets, then it was the decline of participation. The argument today is that the threats are more existential in terms of the rules themselves. Whenever there is a threat, we have to receive information [to make sense of it]. I give the example of that Chinese balloon a couple of months ago. How do I understand what it is and whether or not I should be worried about it? Citizens rely on elites [leaders] to give us information about these things. They frame it for us in a way that is either threatening or isn’t.

The reason the book looks at partisanship as opposed to kind of other cleavages, is because we observe partisans packaging threats to democracy in different ways. So, if you think about the contemporary threats to democracy, the core problem is not just that citizens respond differently to these threats, but that some people don’t view them as threats at all. We have to have a mutually agreed-upon understanding of what a threat is, in order to have a unified response to a threat. What I observe in the book, though, is that partisans respond really differently in these divided societies where you have some deep polarization. Democrats are responding to threats differently than Republicans. Supporters of Brexit are responding differently than supporters of Remain.

Tell me about those cleavages here in the United States.

In the United States, the thing that makes it unique is that we have a zero-sum system, because we only have two parties. So, every win for one side is a loss for the other. Because the stakes are so high, and there are only winners and losers, people understand and respond to threats as either benefiting their side or not. In response to election interference, in response to the problem of polarization, the people who are challenging the status quo, in this case, when my research was fielded in 2019, Democrats, were mobilizing. The Republicans, because they were status quo holders, didn’t have an incentive to move.

Because they were in power.


Tell us more about U.S. electoral system and how it compares to the UK and Germany. Why do majoritarian systems like we have in the U.S. give politicians an incentive to polarize the public?

Political science has very few laws, but one of the laws tells us that when you have “first past the post” electoral systems—plurality electoral systems where the most votes wins and you don’t need a majority—it produces a two-party system. So when you think about voting for Congress, what are the benefits of voting for a third party? Those votes will be wasted. Maybe they’ll detract from another candidate, but there are no gains associated with that, only penalties. So the incentive is to vote for one party or the other. And the parties move strategically recognizing that.

In Germany, they have a two-ballot system, wherein they combine first pass the post with proportional representation where you can choose different parties, and those parties get a proportion of the vote. So you see fewer wasted votes and more minority opinions have a seat at the table. By minority opinions, I mean the Green Party or parties that represent regions or more specialized sets of values. This system lowers the stakes, because you need different coalitions, not just to govern, but to reach consensus and agreement.

The United Kingdom is a middle ground between the two, because you have a two-party system and significant regional parties due to things like devolution and the evolution of sub-national politics. So for example, the Scottish National Party (SNP), while a very small party in Westminster, has significant political power, both in the region and as an agenda setter.

In your book, you’re making a claim that when ordinary people like us respond to democratic threats in a partisan way, this is in itself a threat to democracy. What exactly is the threat that the citizens are posing here in the United States?

The key problem is that democratic threat is a regime-level threat. It threatens the rules that affect everyone. It doesn’t just affect one political group versus another. It doesn’t just affect Democrats, it also affects Republicans.

But when they’re only viewed as problems by the people who lost the election, or when they are ignored by the people who benefited from that outcome, it makes the problem itself partisan. Democracy is a top-level set of values that bind us all together. When a threat is downgraded to something that affects only a certain set of partisans, then it’s no longer seen as a mutual threat. And so, you no longer expect mutual responses.

The real urgency is that we now have two truths about whether an election was fair, whether the vote of 2020 was legitimate, and whether January 6th was an insurrection. Ron DeSantis said he was thinking about pardoning people convicted for the January 6th insurrection, which entrenches the concept that this is a partisan issue. That’s real red flag territory. And I don’t think that we take it seriously enough. And I don’t think that’s me being partisan when I say that, but the fact that you could have listeners who think I sound like a partisan by saying that is already indicative of the problem.

How well does your argument about partisanship as a threat to democracy explain what’s happening in other countries? Because we know that democratic backsliding is happening all over the world. We can look at Turkey, India, Hungary, Israel, Zambia, and Venezuela. How well does what you’re saying translate to these other contexts?

I think very well. Around the world, we don’t see citizens pushing back within their parties. Take Israel, for example. You’ve had unprecedented mobilization. Every Saturday night, you’re seeing protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, other major cities, in the tens of thousands, up to hundreds of thousands, because of Netanyahu’s threats to undermine judicial independence. But those protests are coming from outside his party. You don’t have people within his party defending the institutions of democracy. So the protests look partisan. Israel is a multi-party system, so it looks a lot like Germany institutionally, but because you have this selective interpretation of what is or is not a threat to democracy, you have this group splintering. And so now, this is a really existential moment for the democracy in Israel. And it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will give in to these very significant social pressures coming from outside his party.

We’re living in a 150-mile-per-hour world with cascading crises and conflicts and wars and protests and climate change doom.

Well, when you put it that way!

All of this has wreaked havoc on our ethical concepts that shape how we live in society. It’s made it hard to trust each other. In your book you’re trying to describe things as they are, I think in the hopes that if we know what’s wrong with us, we can do something to change it. It’s really directed at ordinary people. These are our listeners, what would you say to them?

If we can’t move elites, we have to move citizens. And I think the solution is extremely micro-level, speaking personally. For me, it’s reminding myself that while I have family members that voted for Trump, I still have connections and meaningful ties to these people, which should be preserved, even if we can’t talk about certain issues. Those ties are meaningful. We are complicated individuals with lots of identities and I try not to essentialize our differences to this one choice. That’s hard work. [But] remembering that there are commonalities and meaningful ties between neighbors is really part of the story. It’s not the whole story. It’s not the total solution. But it’s part of it. This is the stuff we learned from the social capital literature: that if we maintain these ties then we can call on other attributes at other key moments.

Sara Wallace Goodman, the book is Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat. Thank you for being with us on Talking Policy.

Thank you for having me.