Elite rhetoric can undermine democratic norms

June 8, 2021

PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Democratic stability depends on citizens on the losing side accepting election outcomes. Can rhetoric by political leaders undermine this norm? Using a panel survey experiment, we evaluate the effects of exposure to multiple statements from former president Donald Trump attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 US presidential election. Although exposure to these statements does not measurably affect general support for political violence or belief in democracy, it erodes trust and confidence in elections and increases belief that the election is rigged among people who approve of Trump’s job performance. These results suggest that rhetoric from political elites can undermine respect for critical democratic norms among their supporters.

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