How Personalist Politics is Changing Democracies

Issue Date July 2021
Volume 32
Issue 3
Page Numbers 94-108
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Observers have expressed concerns that democratic politics is growing more personalistic. The absence of cross-national time-series data capturing personalism in democracies, however, has made it difficult to assess the validity of these observations. This study fills that gap. It covers a time-varying index of personalism in the world’s democracies from 1991 to 2020. The index combines original data measuring indicators of personalism with existing data sources. We find that observers’ intuitions are correct: Levels of personalism have increased in democracies in recent years. Importantly, we show that greater personalism is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, such as higher levels of populism, a higher probability of democratic erosion, and greater political polarization. In addition, we explore the potential causes of the personalist wave and find evidence that new technologies and digital tools are facilitating it. Our new index of personalism enables researchers to better explore these and other relationships. Given that a key signal of impending personalization is the leader’s creation of their own political party, we encourage observers to take note of the election of such leaders as a red flag for democracy.

About the Authors

Erica Frantz

Erica Frantz is associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

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Andrea Kendall-Taylor

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is senior fellow in and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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Carisa Nietsche

Carisa Nietsche is associate fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright is professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University and codirector of the Global and International Studies Program.

View all work by Joseph Wright