Globally, broad support for democracy, but many endorse nondemocratic alternatives



Emboldened autocrats and rising populists have shaken assumptions about the future trajectory of liberal democracy, both in nations where it has yet to flourish and countries where it seemed strongly entrenched. Scholars have documented a global “democratic recession,” and some now warn that even long-established “consolidated” democracies could lose their commitment to freedom and slip toward more authoritarian politics, Pew Center researchers write:

A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey finds there are reasons for calm as well as concern when it comes to democracy’s future. More than half in each of the nations polled consider representative democracy a very or somewhat good way to govern their country. Yet, in all countries, pro-democracy attitudes coexist, to varying degrees, with openness to nondemocratic forms of governance, including rule by experts, a strong leader or the military.

“The level of support for some of the nondemocratic approaches, even in Western long-standing democracies, is notable,” said Richard Wike, one of the report’s lead authors. “If you’re looking at rule by the military or strong leader models, it’s minorities, but it’s significant minorities.”

Publics around the globe are generally unhappy with the functioning of their nations’ political systems. Across the 36 countries asked the question, a global median of 46% say they are very or somewhat satisfied with the way their democracy is working, compared with 52% who are not too or not at all satisfied, the Pew survey adds.

The populist and illiberal upheaval has led a number of political leaders and scholars to wonder whether democracy is in danger, not only in post-communist nations, but even in America. On my reading of the evidence, the answer is no, notes analyst William Galston [a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]. Nevertheless, there are no grounds for complacency, he adds, offering three proposals for political and institutional reform to restore the adaptive capacities of government:

  • Bolstering the American middle class should be a vital objective of both domestic policy and foreign policy. A mountain of research tells us that democracy in the long run cannot be stronger than the country’s middle class….
  • We need to at long last rally the forces of good will in both political parties and try to resolve the issue of immigration. It is an urgent national matter that we address this issue. Immigration is poisoning our political system and driving many of the discussions about identity.
  • We have to focus on the sclerosis in our political institutions that is impeding the adaptive capacity of our democracy.  Institutions that thwart the good intentions of good people are discouraging the American people.

Commitment to representative democracy is strongest in North America and Europe, the Pew researchers add:

A median of 37% across the 10 European Union nations polled, as well as 40% in the United States and 44% in Canada, support democracy while rejecting nondemocratic forms of government. Australia is the only country outside of North America and Europe where at least four-in-ten are categorized as committed democrats.

Sweden (52%) shows the strongest level of commitment of all countries surveyed, with roughly half holding this view. By contrast, Russia (7%) has the lowest percentage of committed democrats. A median of 27% in the Middle East and North Africa are classified as committed to representative democracy.

Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and politics at Duke University, argued that the real danger facing democracy isn’t that we no longer trust the government but that we no longer trust each other, Vox’s Sean Illing reports:

Kuran calls it the problem of “intolerant communities,” and he says there are two such communities in America today: “identitarian” activists concerned with issues like racial/gender equality, and the “nativist” coalition, people suspicious of immigration and cultural change.

Each of these communities defines itself in terms of its opposition to the other. They live in different worlds, desire different things, and share almost nothing in common. There is no real basis for agreement and thus no reason to communicate.

The practical consequence of this is a politics marred by tribalism. Worse, because the fault lines run so deep, every political contest becomes an intractable existential drama, with each side convinced the other is not just wrong but a mortal enemy.

Earlier this year, I wrote in the Journal of Democracy, “Liberal democracy is not self-sustaining. It is a human achievement, not a historic inevitability,” Galston adds. That remains true, but our work in sustaining democracy has a proud heritage and a strong foundation upon which to build, he concludes.

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