Arguably, these findings are not, in themselves, all that concerning: The longer survival rate for populists may simply reflect their efficiency or popularity. But among populist leaders who entered office between 1990 and 2015, only a small minority left office as a result of the normal democratic process.
In fact, only 17 percent of populists stepped down after they lost free and fair elections. Another 17 percent vacated high office after they reached their term limits. But 23 percent left office under more dramatic circumstances—they were impeached or forced to resign. Another 30 percent of all populist leaders in our database remain in power to this day. This is partially a function of the recent rise of populism: Thirty-six percent of those populist rulers who still remain in power were elected over the past five years. But even more of them have been in office long enough to raise serious concerns: About half have led their country for at least nine years.
The most important issue, however, is neither how long populists stay in office nor even how they ultimately leave, but what they do with their power—and, in particular, whether their tenure causes what political scientists call “democratic backsliding,” a significant deterioration in the extent to which the citizens enjoy basic rights.
Here, too, our findings were sobering, to say the least: In many countries, populists rewrote the rules of the game to permanently tilt the electoral playing field in their favor. Indeed, an astounding 50 percent of populists either rewrote or amended their country’s constitution when they gained power, frequently with the aim of eliminating presidential term limits and reducing checks and balances on executive power.
To participate in politics in a meaningful way, a country must have freedom of the press, so that citizens can make informed choices; protect civil liberties, so that citizens are free to voice their preferences and organize around their interests; and maintain political rights, so that most adults have the right to participate in free and fair elections. On all of these counts, populist governments fall short. Controlling for the many ways in which countries that elect populists may be different from countries that do not—including per capita income, recent economic performance, a country’s history with democratic institutions, and civil conflict—we found that populist rule is associated with a 7 percent decline in freedom of the press, an 8 percent decline in civil liberties, and a 13 percent decline in political rights.
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Overall, 23 percent of populist governments initiate democratic backsliding, defined as at least a one-point drop in a country’s democracy score as defined by the Polity IV project. By comparison, only 6 percent of non-populist governments are responsible for this kind of deterioration. In all, a populist government is four times more likely than a non-populist one to damage democratic institutions. (And it is likely that we’re under-counting actual cases of democratic erosion because of status-quo bias in organizations that measure the robustness of democracies. Despite ample evidence of the erosion of rule of law and media freedoms in Hungary and Poland, for example, Polity IV had not yet registered democratic backsliding in these countries as of 2017.)