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20-04-2024 | Original Paper

Populism and Support for Limiting the Power of Constitutional Courts: The Case of Germany

Authors: Mark Peffley, Robert Rohrschneider

Published in: Political Behavior

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Abstract

Given the rise of populism around the globe, do populist citizens support the exceptional authority of national constitutional courts to make decisions on controversial issues? Or do these individuals view constitutional courts just like any other political institution? To investigate this question, we embedded an experiment in a national survey in Germany in early 2020 that varied the institution (i.e., the federal constitutional court (FCC), the parliament and the EU) and its decision on a controversial civil liberties issue. The results clearly show that citizens with populist attitudes judge the FCC like any other political institution in terms of their willingness to restrict its authority. In contrast, individuals with non-populist attitudes endorse the exceptional status of the FCC compared to other institutions. The study suggests that the FCC may lose its venerate status as the ultimate guardian of democracy among the nontrivial portion of citizens who favor populism. Theoretically, the results support a “fusion” model that assumes populists’ support for power curbing includes the constitutional court in “the system” they disparage.

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Appendix
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Footnotes
2
Justices on the FCC are selected by members of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the German parliament that represents the state governments.
 
3
The 12–5-2020 speech was reported on the public broadcast German news show, Heute Journal, 3–5-2021.
 
4
Note the fusion scenario speaks to more than the finding that evaluations of political trust are correlated across institutions since it focuses on the difference in support for curbing democratic institutions between populist and non-populist citizens.
 
5
We did not find significant regional differences across former East and West German States in the association between populism and a range of political attitudes.
 
6
We omitted from all analyses a small number of respondents (N = 146; 4.9%) who demonstrated a clear indication of satisficing responses (Krosnick 1999) by “straight lining” (selecting the same response for items in a battery with opposite polarity) and “speeding” (completing the survey faster than 70% of respondents).
 
7
The order of items presented to respondents was randomized.
 
8
We were guided in our selection of the five populism indicators by the German Longitudinal Election Studies (GLES) in 2017 and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, round 5. We examined whether our populism indicators simply constitute a different version of individual distrust in institutions (parliament, executive, the FCC, and the EU). A confirmatory factor analysis shows, however, that a two-dimensional solution, where populism and trust are correlated but kept as separate factors, fits the data much better than a one-dimensional model (for a similar finding, see Geurking 2020, 257).
 
9
We decided against using an alternative measurement strategy requiring populists to score in the upper range of all three populism components—anti-elitism, Manichean views, and popular sovereignty (Wuttke, Schimpf, and Schoen 2020). Our first concern is this measure effectively truncates the variance in the middle and lower ranges of the populism scale, since individuals who score below an arbitrary threshold on a single component (the 75th percentile in their study) are lumped into one “low” category (see their Table S2-I, Supplementary Information). Their measure thus ignores the continuous variation of people in the middle of the scale who are of theoretical interest because they may be susceptible to elite appeals (e.g., Lavine, et al. 2012). A second concern is their assessment essentially ignores widely accepted criteria for assessing the construct and convergent validity of a measure. In fact, their evidence shows an additive populism index consistently outperforms their measure in terms of construct validity (see, e.g., Fig. 6, where an additive scale is more negatively correlated with institutional trust for all nine countries they study).
 
10
As we point out below (footnote 17, Fig. A6), most Germans, especially strong populists, do not support a decision to legalize wearing a Burqa.
 
12
Alpha for the index is .48, and the correlation between the two items for the pooled sample is .32, which is partially due to the fact that the items are worded in different directions, which suppresses correlations between Likert items (Paulhus 1991). See Bartels and Johnston (2020) for their use of both items.
 
13
See also Werner’s (2000) observational strategy using panel analysis to assess instrumental support for multiple referendums over time in the Netherlands.
 
14
We decided against including evaluations of an institution’s performance as a predictor because of endogeneity concerns (i.e., support for curbing an institution’s authority may lead one to disapprove of its performance). Empirically, the decision not to include it in the analysis has no real impact on our results.
 
15
In Appendix Table A3, we present the results of two models (with and without partisanship) for each of the three institutions to illustrate how the predictors vary in magnitude across institutions and whether the addition of partisanship significantly changes the effects of populism. Importantly, the results do not deviate from Table 1.
 
16
The correlation (r = .22) between populism and left–right self-placement indicates a modest tendency for conservatives to hold more populist preferences (see Appendix Fig. A1). However, including a quadratic Left–Right term to test for a curvilinear tendency of the far right and left to be more willing to curb institutions was never significant in any of the models of support for curbing.
 
17
In Appendix Fig. A7, we graph the estimated contrast effects for the legal vs. illegal decision conditions for each institution to show that above the mean of the populism index, an uncongenial “legal” decision significantly increases support for curbing for all three institutions.
 
18
We asked respondents immediately after reading the vignettes to rate “the extent [they] support or oppose the decision” on a 5-point scale, recoded to 0 to 1. As we show in Appendix Fig. A6, strong populists clearly prefer the illegal to the legal decision. Of course, we do not use Support for the Decision to predict support for curbing because both questions were asked after the experimental manipulation (e.g., Montgomery, Nyhan and Torres 2018).
 
19
When we re-estimate the models separately for each of the two indicators measuring support for curbing (overturn and comply with the decision), the results lead to the same conclusion (see Appendix Fig. A3).
 
20
Our models explain a respectable portion of the variance in curbing support, considering respondents are reacting to a hypothetical scenario. A protracted and highly polarized constitutional crisis over curbing a country’s constitutional court (e.g., Israel in 2023), on the other hand, would likely activate powerful predispositions like partisanship to increase the variance explained in curbing support.
 
21
A confirmatory factor analysis of the populism indicators from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES round 5, 2016–2021) shows that, with the exception of Hungary, German and European respondents structure and interpret the CSES populism indicators identically, in a statistical sense (online Appendix Table A5). Also, the average level of support for populism in Germany is similar to 16 other democracies in the CSES study (Appendix Fig. A4). Finally, in Appendix Fig. A5, we use the 2016–2020 European Values Surveys to show the contemporary German public is quite representative in its level of confidence in the Judiciary, Parliament, and the EU, compared to 11 European countries.
 
22
Replication code and data are available at Dataverse https://​doi.​org/​10.​7910/​DVN/​EELNIC.
 
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Metadata
Title
Populism and Support for Limiting the Power of Constitutional Courts: The Case of Germany
Authors
Mark Peffley
Robert Rohrschneider
Publication date
20-04-2024
Publisher
Springer US
Published in
Political Behavior
Print ISSN: 0190-9320
Electronic ISSN: 1573-6687
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-024-09928-8

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