Democracy is in trouble, Pew Research analysis of global surveys reveals

WASHINGTON – Global surveys in recent years by think-tank Pew Research come to an inescapable conclusion that democracy as a system of governance, marked in its most basic form by equal rights, inclusivity, free elections and the checks and balances of independent institutions, is in trouble.

An analysis of surveys on democracy conducted by Pew globally between 2015 and 2021 reveals four key insights into how citizens think about democratic governance – that democracy is not delivering; that people like democracy, but their commitment to it is often not very strong; that political and social divisions are amplifying the challenges of contemporary democracy; and that people want a stronger public voice in politics and policymaking.

The report released on Tuesday (Dec 7) comes ahead of a first-ever, two-day virtual, US-convened Democracy Summit on Dec 9-10, featuring 110 invited participants from around the world.

The idea, according to the White House, is to galvanise commitments and initiatives along three principal themes – defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.

What democracy is up against

A 2017 Pew survey of 38 countries found that a median of 49 per cent believed that a system in which “experts, not elected officials, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country” would be very or somewhat good.

And while autocracy was less popular than democracy, it was embraced by a remarkably large share of the public in many nations, Pew said.

A median of 26 per cent considered a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from Parliament or the courts to be a very or somewhat good way to govern, the survey revealed.

Even military rule had its supporters, Pew found. A median of 24 per cent said a system in which the military rules the country would be a very or somewhat good system.

In five countries – Vietnam, Indonesia, India, South Africa and Nigeria – roughly half or more expressed this opinion.

Higher-income nations were not completely immune, Pew found. In Italy, France and the United States, 17 per cent believed military rule could be a good way to run the country.

Pew notes that this finding was largely consistent with results from other public opinion surveys.

Economic pessimism

Pew Research Centre surveys have consistently found large shares of the public dissatisfied with the way their democracy is working, and desiring political change.

“A median of 56 per cent across 17 advanced economies surveyed in 2021 say their political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed,” Pew said.

“Roughly two-thirds or more express this opinion in Italy, Spain, the US, South Korea, Greece, France, Belgium and Japan.”

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Broadly, this is being driven by pessimism over the future. Over the past decade and a half, people around the world have experienced a global financial crisis, and, more recently, a pandemic-driven global downturn, Pew noted.

“Many have grown pessimistic about the long-term economic future, and our data has illustrated how economic pessimism feeds dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working and weakens commitment to democratic values.”

A 2019 analysis of data from 27 countries found that the strongest predictor of being dissatisfied was unhappiness with the current state of the national economy.

Another significant predictor was perceptions of economic opportunity.

The survey conducted early this year of 17 advanced economies found that dissatisfaction with democracy was much more common among people who expect their children to be financially worse off when they grow up than they themselves were.

“The economic pessimists are also especially likely to think their country’s political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed,” Pew said.

“In the United Kingdom, 61 per cent of respondents who are pessimistic about the next generation’s financial prospects think their country needs significant political reform, compared with just 34 per cent among those who are optimistic that the next generation will do better financially than their parents.”

In Singapore, 58 per cent said they thought the country’s political system need not be changed, or needed just minor changes. Twenty-seven per cent said it needed major change, and 12 per cent said it needs major reforms.

That placed Singapore on roughly the same level as Sweden and the Netherlands.

Right wing, less educated, less enthusiastic

In many countries, people who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum and those with less formal education are more likely to support alternatives to democratic governance, Pew said.

In the US, 27 per cent of those who identified as conservative thought autocracy would be a good way to govern, compared with 14 per cent who identified as liberal.

And 20 per cent of conservatives supported military rule, compared with 12 per cent of liberals. “People with lower levels of educational attainment were more likely to consider military rule a good way to govern in 23 countries,” Pew said.

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