People in “increasingly autocratic” regimes show confidence in “democracy” in their countries

The Centre for the Future of Democracy is based at Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge aims “to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by democratic politics over the coming century”. Back in January, the Centre has published a report [PDF] titled “Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020”. The report is based on what seems like a very useful data set created by combining multiple survey data sources comprising 3,500 surveys from many countries around the world over the years 1973 to 2020 asking citizens whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries.

The key findings are not surprising:

Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise. In the mid-1990s, a majority of citizens in countries for which we have time-series data – in North America, Latin America,Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia – were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are “dissatisfied” with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.

This is the highest level of global dissatisfaction since the start of the series in 1995. After a large increase in civic dissatisfaction in the prior decade, 2019 represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record.The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005. The year that marks the beginning of the so-called “global democratic recession” is also the high point for global satisfaction with democracy, with just 38.7% of citizens dissatisfied in that year. Since then, the proportion of “dissatisfied” citizens has risen by almost one-fifth of the population (+18.8%).

Many of the world’s most populous democracies – including the United States, Brazil, Nigeria, and Mexico – have led the downward trend. In the United States, levels of dis-satisfaction with democracy have risen by over a third of the population in one generation.

As a result, many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction.These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.

Citizens of developed democracies have also experienced a large increase in democratic dissatisfaction. While in the 1990s, around two-thirds of the citizens of Europe, North America, Northeast Asia and Australasia felt satisfied with democracy in their countries, today a majority feel dissatisfied.

While it goes beyond the scope of this report to explain the cause of this shift, we observe that citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events– economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.

The title of this post refers to a point made by the report which is associated with what “democracy” actually means:

Public opinion across the post-Soviet space shows democracy to be struggling, and authoritarianism resurgent. Among the region’s remaining democracies – in Moldova,Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine – satisfaction with democracy in the last two decades has stagnated or declined [to] an extremely low level, with 3 in every 4 citizens expressing discontent with the democratic system as they currently experience it.

Meanwhile in Russia and Belarus, regular data on civic satisfaction with “democracy” continues to be collected – as it has been since the mid-1990s – in spite of the increasingly autocratic governance of these countries. In general, such surveys show a continuing recovery of confidence in the political system. Figure 21 shows this trend in Russia, for example, compared to the population-weighted average among non-EU, post-Soviet nations. The contrast between democratic and authoritarian polities in the post-Soviet space indicates an important point: citizens evaluate the performance of their polity not only by its adherence to liberal-democratic norms, but also for its ability to offer valued outputs such as political and social stability, economic growth, and a sense of collective purpose and pride. To the extent that emerging democracies fail to do this, the legitimacy of the democratic system itself may be eroded.

One Response

  1. I’m glad you included the scare quotes.


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