Research Unit
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Democracy is under threat around the world. During the so-called “third wave” of democratization in the 1990s, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many analysts and policymakers believed that authoritarianism was on the wane and that democracy had become, as the phrase commonly went in the 1990s, “the only game in town.” That era of self-confidence has passed. Not only is authoritarianism alive and well in China, Russia, Central Asia, and much of the Middle East, but democratic breakdown in Thailand and Venezuela and democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary, Brazil, Ecuador the Philippines, Poland and Turkey has triggered debates over whether we have entered a period of global democratic recession. Indeed, even established Western democracies themselves have fallen into varying degrees of crisis. With Donald Trump’s 2016 election in the United States and the rise of populist, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant forces in Europe, as well as signs of growing voter disaffection with democracy, some observers have begun to worry that even the world’s most established democracies may be at risk. We are faced, then, with one of the most pressing issues of our time: can liberal democracy around the world survive?

This research unit focuses on “transformations in democracy”—forward impulses of democratization, backward trends of de-democratization, and innovations in democratic institutions and practice to cope with the new pressures on democracy around the world. Three “buckets” of research together the different initiatives of the WZB “Transformations of Democracy” division.


Work in progress:

a) Localism and Political Geography

“Wealth of Tongues: Why Peripheral Regions Vote for the Radical Right” (with Daniel Bischof and Hanno Hilbig) February 2021, Working Paper.

Why do voters for the radical right tend to cluster in specific geographic locations? Many scholars have emphasized the economic roots of radical right support. Other scholarship highlights the role of the urban-rural divide, contending that the radical right finds support in low population density locations due to distinctive social values and strong place-based social identities found in rural areas. To date, however, we do not have a full grasp of the sources of these latter factors nor an understanding of the historical roots that explain their emergence. We argue that what is frequently classified as the ``rural'' bases of radical right support in previous research is in part a proxy for something entirely different: communities that were in the historical "periphery" in the center-periphery conflicts that shaped modern nation-state formation. Inspired by a classic state-building literature that emphasizes the prevalence of a ``wealth of tongues'' (Weber 1976)---or nonstandard linguistic dialects in a region---as a definition of the periphery, we use data from more than 725,000 geo-coded responses in a linguistic survey in Germany to show that voters from historically peripheral geographic communities are more likely to vote for the radical right today.


b) Historical Political Economy

“Consequences of Competition Under Autocracy for Democratic Elections: From Imperial to Weimar Germany” February 2021, Working Paper (with Volha Charnysh).

How do authoritarian election practices affect democratic political outcomes? We argue that political parties' uneven access to state resources in a pre-democratic setting has lasting effects on their organizational development and electoral prospects after a democratic transition. When party elites are able to win authoritarian elections by relying on state influence, they under-invest in formal party organization and fail to cultivate stable voter linkages. After a democratic transition, poorly institutionalized parties are less effective at containing internal disagreements and representing their electorates, which undermines their electoral performance and increases voter defections to anti-system parties. We test this argument using an original district-level dataset on electoral disputes in German elections (1871-1933). We show that pro-regime parties' reliance on state influence in some districts in non-democratic elections predicts greater electoral losses by their successor parties, the DNVP and the DVP, after democratization. We also show that during the Great Depression the Nazi Party secured more votes in districts with a history of state-sponsored electoral manipulation. Manipulation by private actors does not seem to have comparable consequences for electoral outcomes, possibly because its determinants, such as control over labor and capital, remain accessible to parties after regime change.


“Capital Meets Democracy: The Impact of Franchise Extension on Sovereign Bond Markets” (with Aditya Dasgupta) forthcoming, 2021.

By giving political rights to poor voters, do democratic political institutions pose a threat of expropriation to concentrated wealth, much of which is held in the form of financial capital? This paper tests redistributive theories of democratization with a study of the reaction of the market for sovereign bonds to the extension of political rights from elites to working-class voters between 1800 and 1920. If franchise extension redistributed political power, then this change in the political equilibrium should have registered in sovereign bond markets. Exploiting the asynchronous timing of franchise reforms across countries, we provide evidence that franchise extension contributed to large increases in the premium demanded by investors to hold sovereign debt, reflecting an increased risk of expropriation. However, bond markets became less sensitive to franchise extensions over time, a pattern potentially due to the adoption of institutions that protected the interests of investors.


c) Inequality, Identity, and Politics of Resentment

“How do voters respond to assaults to checks and balances? Evidence from a survey experiment in Turkey” (with Alper Yagci and Aytug Sasmaz). 2021.

Citizens’ support for executive aggrandizement can erode a democracy. If voters demonstrate “elastic” support for executive aggrandizement---i.e. they change their institutional preferences about executive aggrandizement opportunistically based on who will win/lose power--this poses a threat to democracy. We document the existence of such a behavioral tendency through a survey experiment in Turkey, an important case of democratic backsliding, by manipulating voters’ perceptions about the potential results of the first presidential elections after a referendum of executive aggrandizement. Although we conducted a weak treatment, we find that at least 10 percent of voters display elastic support for executive aggrandizement. The likelihood of this behavioral tendency increases \ when citizens feel greater identity distance to perceived political “others” (affective polarization), and when voters are concerned about economic management in a potential post-incumbent era. Our findings contribute to the literature on how polarization, identity, and concerns about the economy contribute to executive aggrandizement and democratic backsliding.


Julia Jann
Tel.: +49 30 25491-327
julia.jann [at]

Reichpietschufer 50
D-10785 Berlin

Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die

Crown, 2018
ISBN 978-1-524-76293-3


Daniel Ziblatt

Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy

Cambridge University Press, 2017
ISBN 978-1-107-00162-6


Daniel Ziblatt

Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism

Princeton University Press, 2008
ISBN 978-0-691-13649-3