Democracy and expectations

Regular readers will be familiar with some of the various studies that try to measure the health of democracy around the world. For example, here’s my discussion at the beginning of this year of the Economist’s latest Democracy Index. And here’s a more recent report from Freedom House specifically on democratic decay in central and eastern Europe.

These studies depend on assessments according to various criteria that go to make up democracy and related concepts. But another way of learning something about democracy is to just ask ordinary people what they think. That’s the idea behind the Democracy Perception Index, whose 2020 edition was released this week by the Alliance of Democracies.

As it explains, the index is “based on nationally representative interviews with 124,000 respondents from 53 countries,” conducted over the last two months. And the results are fascinating, although they need to be interpreted with some caution.

First the good news: most people like democracy and want more of it. Worldwide, 78% say that democracy is important for their country, a majority in every country surveyed. And not a single country found a majority who thought they needed less democracy than they currently have.

Those numbers are essentially unchanged from last year. In both reports the country with the weakest support for democracy was Iran, down from 55% to 50%. It’s been a turbulent year in Iran, so that decline might reflect disillusionment with democracy, but I suspect it’s more likely to be a increased reluctance to be honest with a stranger who’s asking questions about politics.

That’s going to be a problem in a number of countries. Consider, for example, the “perceived democratic deficit” – that is, the gap between the proportion who think democracy is important and the proportion who think their own country is actually democratic. In some countries it’s very large: 35 points or more in Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and Venezuela.

But in other cases it’s quite small, sometimes suspiciously so. Most striking is Saudi Arabia, where 63% told the pollsters they thought democracy was important. But a remarkable 53% said they thought their country was already democratic, producing a deficit of only nine points.

Since Saudi Arabia is in fact an absolute monarchy, this is not a credible result. But it’s not an isolated case; in China and Vietnam, 73% and 71% respectively maintained that their country was democratic – higher figures than for most actual democracies on the list, including Australia (58%).

One of two things could be going on here. Either many people in these countries have an unorthodox notion of what “democracy” amounts to, or else the survey methodology is not accurately reflecting what people think. There’s probably an element of both, but it seems to me that the second is the more serious problem. In many countries, including a lot of those we would most like to learn about, people know that it can be very unsafe to venture their real political opinions.

Leaving that aside, there is much food for thought in the report. Large numbers of people – 43% overall (but only 32% in Australia) – think that their government “usually acts in the interest of a small group of people,” a result that’s largely independent of the degree of democracy. And there’s a very even division of opinion on the influence of the United States on democracy: 44% say it’s positive, 38% negative.*

Respondents in most countries gave favorable opinions of their country’s handling of Covid-19, but also expressed concern about interference from a foreign power in their next election. And although the authors choose not to highlight the fact (but you can find it in the table at the end), large majorities think that social media platforms have a positive impact on democracy.


* Interestingly, while China and Vietnam march together on other questions, on this one they part company completely: Vietnam overwhelmingly positive, China overwhelmingly negative.

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