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How is Democracy Perceived Today? Two Reports Stress Citizens’ Doubts

How is Democracy Perceived Today? Two Reports Stress Citizens’ Doubts
 Théophile Lenoir
Fellow - Misinformation and Digital Policy

Something is happening to democracy worldwide. The Washington-based fact tank Pew Research Center calls it ‘a deepening anxiety about [its] future’. The Paris-based think tank Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol), ‘signs of [its] destabilising’. Last month, both institutes published their studies on the perception of this form of governance.

The Pew Research Center investigated the opinions of citizens in 38 democratic countries around the world, in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North and South America, and Europe. In France, Dominique Reynié and the Fondapol surveyed citizens of European democracies (22 members of the European Union, as well as Switzerland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States) for their report "Où va la démocratie ?" (What next for democracy?). What are their key takeaways?

Mixed feelings towards democracy

A majority of people are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in their country. Across the 38 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, a median of 52% are not too or not at all satisfied with democracy at home. In Europe, the Fondapol measures a similar figure, with an average of 53% of citizens thinking their democracy functions poorly. But there are large geographical differences. This phenomenon is particularly strong in South America, with a median of 73% of citizens saying they are dissatisfied with democracy. On the contrary, in Asia 64% of people report being happy about the way democracy is working (South Korea is the only exception - the Pew Research Center notes the high political tensions at the time of the survey). 

In Europe, the Pew Research Center survey points at a division between Northern European countries (Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and the U.K.), where on average 70% of citizens are happy with the functioning of democracy, and Southern ones (France, Italy Spain and Greece), where this proportion is significantly lower, at 28%. The Fondapol provides a richer picture, bringing Eastern European countries in the conversation. They note the fragile support for democracy in those nations where this system of governance is more recent: apart from the Estonian, citizens of all other ex-communist states (Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, Lettonia, Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania) consider that democracy does not work in their country (from 82% in Bulgaria to 53% in Lithuania).

Democracy & the economy

Both research institutes bring to light the factors that help understand this growing dissatisfaction towards democracy. They note a correlation between the perception of democracy and that of the economy. For example, the Pew Research Center notes that people who are satisfied with the economic situation in their country are also statistically happier with the way democracy is working (this difference is highest in Venezuela and Sweden, and lowest in Ghana and Mexico). In a similar vein, people who have a positive view of the economy in their country are more trusting of their current government.

This is also true in Europe. The Fondapol shows that perceptions of changes in quality of life (‘The recent changes have been for you: beneficial, not beneficial, neutral’) correlate with the attitude towards democracy: those who think their quality of life improved think better of democracy than those who claim it decreased (from 62% to 29% on average). 

Democracy and globalization

According to the Fondapol, there is also a correlation between trust in democracy and perceptions of globalization. For example whilst on average, in the 25 European countries surveyed, 66% of citizens believe that ‘voting is useful because it is through elections that one can make a change’, this figure increases to 72% amongst the people who say globalization is an opportunity. It is 58% for those who see it as a threat.

Democracy & autocracy 

Both institutes report some support for systems in which a strong leader can bypass regulators and parliament. The Pew Research Center asks, ‘Would a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts be a good or bad way of governing this country?’. In the 7 Asian countries and the 6 African countries surveyed, a large proportion of citizens agree with the former (with a median of 42% in Asia and 39% Africa). This percentage is lower in Europe (ranging from 29% in Italy to 6% in Germany, with a median of 13%). 

According to the Fondapol, 34% of European citizens agree with the opinion that having an authoritarian government would be beneficial for the country. This proportion is higher in those countries that joined the European Union after 2004: 68% of the Lithuanian, 59% of the Bulgarian or 58% of Romanian think this form of government is favorable. It is significantly lower in older Western European democracies, although it remains high (35% in France and Germany, 34% in Portugal, 27% in Switzerland. Italy is closer to Eastern European countries in this sense, with 41% of citizens thinking a government with a strong leader would be a good thing). Finally, this figure is lowest in Northern countries such as Denmark (21%), Sweden (17%) or the Netherlands (17%). 

Democracy & education

The reports diverge on the correlation between level of education and attitude towards democracy. According to the Pew Research Center, ‘education has a large impact on attitudes about governance’, as in 22 of the 38 countries surveyed, people with less education are more likely than those with higher levels of education to reject representative democracy as the better political system (for example a difference of 14% in France, 17% in the United States, and as high as 23% in Peru). This difference is highest when it comes to rule by the military (less educated people are more likely to believe rule by the military would be a good thing).

On its side, the Fondapol reports that the level of education is not helpful in predicting citizens’ attitude towards forms of governance. Of the 10% of citizens surveyed who say a government led by an authoritarian leader would be a ‘very good thing’, 54% finished their education before they were 21, and 39% went further in their studies. However, the French think tank insists on the influence of geography: in cities with less than 100,000 inhabitants, 74% support an autocratic form of government. In large cities (more than 500,000 citizens) this figure goes down to 12%. Similarly, 71% of the people who consider that democracy works ‘very badly’ in their country live in cities of less than 100,000 inhabitants.

These reports offer avenues of reflexion to better understand the reasons for the growing distrust towards democracy in the 21st century. Overall, they help identify, with figures, a simple phenomenon: the winners of our contemporary world are satisfied about the way it is governed. Losers, on the other hand, are more skeptical.

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