Political Science

Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe

Why leaders, not citizens, are the driving force in Europe’s crisis of democracy


Apr 4, 2023
6.13 x 9.25 in.
30 b/w illus. 32 tables.
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An apparent 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. 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.

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.

Awards and Recognition

  • A Foreign Affairs Best of Books