Brendan Hartnett’s Data for Democracy

His undergraduate research takes aim at the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad 

Brendan Hartnett, A23, a political science major who studies how democracies become autocracies, was surprised that this process wasn’t a larger talking point during the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Believing an assault on American democracy was imminent, he worked with Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies Brian Schaffner to poll Trump supporters shortly before Election Day: If Trump lost, would his supporters prefer he concede peacefully or resist the results, depending on the popular vote margins? 

About 40 percent wanted Trump to fight back, even if he lost the popular vote by 10 to 12 points—suggesting Trump followers were less concerned about fraudulent elections and more worried about their candidate losing power, an illiberal mindset he realized parallels those in hybrid-democracies in Central Eastern Europe, which he had also studied. 

As Trump did indeed begin to undermine the election results, The New York Times picked up the Tufts research. After the Capitol insurrection, more journalists referenced Hartnett’s findings, and after the work was published in PS: Political Science & Politics, it was featured in the Washington Post.   

What was the bigger idea behind your study? 

My goal is to conduct research that can help in the fight to restore the health of democracy in the United States and other struggling democracies across the globe. 

Why does this matter in today’s world? 

There’s a recession of liberal democracies toward hybrid regimes in the West. Hungary and Poland are the best examples, and the U.S. followed on this path.  

There’s also the rise in prominence of authoritarian regimes worldwide. China is using its Belt and Road program of creating infrastructure in surrounding nations to further its economic interests and soft power diplomacy in Africa, the Pacific, and even parts of Eastern Europe. Russia has returned to a rogue authoritarian state that’s an aggressor to democracy itself, particularly with its invasion of Ukraine. The combination of those two forces has made global politics inhospitable toward democracies, or at least more so than previously.  

In a word, your idea is…   

Gritty. I think you don’t save democracy from grand policy measures or ambitious speeches but really nose-to-the-pavement, on-the-ground work.  

In 10 years, where will you be? 

After graduating from Tufts, I plan to enter a Ph.D. program in political science, having been awarded a Beinecke Scholarship last spring. I’ll use my data science skills to produce public-facing research, because that’s how you can break through these partisan divides. You can objectively say: “Here’s empirical evidence that this threat to democracy exists, now politicians and activists must take the requisite steps to stave off this illiberal assault.”  

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