Does Elite Rhetoric Undermine Democratic Norms?

November 17, 2020


In this paper, the researchers test 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., Bartholow, Bushman, 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.

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