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Global survey: democracy remains popular but many are dissatisfied

Protest in Phoenix, Arizona. Image: AJ Colores/Unsplash

Over the past few years, many commentators have become pessimistic about the future of democracy, lamenting the rise of right-populist movements stretching from the United States to India. However, the latest 34-nation Pew Research Center survey shows a more complex reality.

Most respondents still embrace the notion and key ideals of democracy. More than four out of five say a fair judiciary is very important to have in their country, while two out of three say regular elections are essential. Sizeable majorities say free speech and a free press are vital, and the proportion of those expressing this view has risen in many nations since 2015.

Most respondents embrace the notion and key ideals of democracy

But though these data suggest democracy is strong, weaknesses in how it is working are causing doubts. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents say elected officials in their country do not really care what the public thinks, and an overall majority of 52 percent say they are dissatisfied with how democracy is functioning in their country. This result is similar to a 28-nations survey carried out by Pew Research last year but overall 5.5 percent lower compared to a 154-nation study presented recently by the University of Cambridge’s new Centre for the Future of Democracy. Respondents were evenly split on the question of whether their government runs the state for the benefit of all.

Globally, many are dissatisfied with the way democracy works. Source: Pew Research

Frustration with political leaders was found to be particularly high in many European nations where populist parties have been on the rise. More than seven in 10 respondents in the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, and the UK said politicians do not care about people like them; a similar proportion of respondents in the United States said the same. Dissatisfaction with democracy as a whole rose considerably in France (up seven percent) and the UK (up 14 percent) between 2018 and 2019.

The study also found disparities in what civil rights respondents consider most important. While a majority said a fair judiciary (82%), gender equality (74%), freedom of religion (68%), regular elections (65%), freedom of speech (64%), freedom of the press (64%), freedom on the Internet (59%), freedom for human rights groups to operate (55%), and freedom for opposition parties to operate (54%) were very important, only one in three respondents said all nine of these freedoms were very important – and in eight of the 34 nations, fewer than one in 10 respondents said all nine were very important.

Even with these frustrations and doubts, two-thirds of respondents said voting gives ordinary people some say about how the government runs things. In the Philippines, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden, more than four out of five respondents expressed this view, as did three-fourths of U.S. respondents. But some nations’ respondents were more pessimistic. Nearly half of respondents in Hungary, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Tunisia – and more than half of Japanese respondents – said they do not think their vote really matters.

Results for the survey are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted under the direction of Gallup and Abt Associates in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Further analysis and the complete report are available from the Pew Research Center website.

Peter Orvetti
Peter Orvetti is a writer, intelligence analyst, and world federalism advocate residing in Washington, D.C.
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