Democracy Erodes from the Top

Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe

Larry M. Bartels | 2023

A seeming explosion of support for right-wing populist parties has triggered widespread fears that liberal democracy is facing its worst crisis since the 1930s. Democracy Erodes from the Top reveals that the real crisis stems not from an increasingly populist public but from political leaders who exploit or mismanage the chronic vulnerabilities of democracy.

In this provocative book, Larry Bartels dismantles the pervasive myth of a populist wave in contemporary European public opinion. While there has always been a substantial reservoir of populist sentiment, Europeans are no less trusting of their politicians and parliaments than they were two decades ago, no less enthusiastic about European integration, and no less satisfied with the workings of democracy. Anti-immigrant sentiment has waned.

The notion that democracy is in crisis provides a compelling hook for much recent political writing. In the opening pages of his book Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West, a former chief European correspondent of the Washington Post warned, “Just a quarter century after the liberal international order of open markets, free speech, and democratic elections had triumphed over the forces of communism, the Western democracies now seem in danger of collapsing, as a backlash against globalization arouses angry opponents of immigration, free trade, and cultural tolerance.”?

Electoral support for right-wing populist parties has increased only modestly, reflecting the idiosyncratic successes of populist entrepreneurs, the failures of mainstream parties, and media hype. Europe’s most sobering examples of democratic backsliding—in Hungary and Poland—occurred not because voters wanted authoritarianism but because conventional conservative parties, once elected, seized opportunities to entrench themselves in power.

In this book, I summarize broad trends in European public opinion from 2002 through 2019, focusing particularly on attitudes commonly taken as symptomatic of a “crisis of democracy,” including economic disaffection, antipathy to immigration and European integration, ideological polarization, distrust of political elites, and dissatisfaction with the workings of democracy itself. I examine the impact of these attitudes on support for right-wing populist parties, which turns out to be substantial. I also explore their role in precipitating significant erosions of democracy in Hungary and Poland, which turns out to be remarkably modest.

By demonstrating the inadequacy of conventional bottom-up interpretations of Europe’s political crisis, Democracy Erodes from the Top turns our understanding of democratic politics upside down.


Bartels, L. (2023) Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press.