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Who’s to Blame for Democratic Backsliding: Populists, Presidents or Dominant Executives?

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When backsliding occurs at the hands of populist presidents who were elected in landslide elections, producing dominant executives with few institutional checks and weak opposition parties, should we blame the decline in democracy on their populist ideology, their presidential powers, or their parties’ dominance in the legislature?

The literature on democratic backsliding has mostly arrived at a consensus on what backsliding entails and collectively has revealed its growing prevalence around the globe. Yet, scholars have not settled on causal explanations for this phenomenon.

We assess the evidence for recent ideology-centered arguments for democratic backsliding relative to previous institutional arguments among all democratically elected executives serving in all regions of the world since 1970. We use newly available datasets on populist leaders and parties to evaluate the danger of populists in government, and we employ matching methods to distinguish the effects of populist executives, popularly-elected presidents, and dominant executives on the extent of decline in liberal democracy.


Marisa Kellam is an associate professor of political science at Waseda University (Tokyo, Japan). Her research focuses on the quality of democracy in Latin America. In her work, she links institutional analysis to governance outcomes within three lines of inquiry: (1) political parties and coalitional politics, (2) media freedom and democratic accountability, and (3) populism and democratic backsliding. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals such as the British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Party Politics, Electoral Studies, and Political Communication. After earning a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA, she spent several years as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. Since 2013, Marisa Kellam has been teaching international and Japanese students in the English-based degree programs of Waseda University’s School of Political Science & Economics.