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Survey explores causes for dissatisfaction with democracy

Yellow vests protest at the Champs-Élysées in Paris in March 2019. Source: Thomon/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A new report by the Pew Research Centre published last month found that a population’s satisfaction with democracy is tied to subjective assessments of economic wellbeing, respect of individual rights, and of separation of the “elites” from the rest of the population. The report, which gathered data from interviews in 28 nations, provides evidence for the reasons behind the increasing fragility of global democracy seen in recent assessments such as from Freedom House.

As the study points out, across 27 countries polled, a median of 51% are dissatisfied with how democracy is working and only 45% are satisfied. The researchers stress that this is largely not due to a resentment of democratic principles, but of actual political outcomes. 

People are dissatisfied with democratic performance, not principles

The strongest correlation found was between a negative assessment of a nation’s economic performance and dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working. Similarly, according to the study, in 26 of 27 nations, those who believe that most people cannot improve their standard of living in their country are also those who are more likely to be dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.

In addition, it was found that the perceived conduct of politicians was a significant factor. Where politicians were viewed as being “out of touch” with the general population, a greater dissatisfaction with democracy was found. The perception of politicians as inefficient or corrupt severely undermined the overall perception of how well democracy is working.

These result are significant, as this paper and others have found that “the more dissatisfied people are with democracy, the less likely they are to say representative democracy, rather than alternative models like technocracy, a strong leader model, or military rule, is a good way to govern their country”. Thus, a perceived failure of democracy to meet the needs of the people leads to an increased willingness to support other forms of governance.

Dissatisfaction with how democracy is working is a common trend across many nations. European nations tend to be more dissatisfied, whilst dissatisfaction in the Asia-Pacific region tends to be less . As a rule, dissatisfaction was higher in emerging economies than in developed economies.

In all countries except for the USA, rising concerns about the economic outlook directly correlated with democratic dissatisfaction. In France and South Korea, where the economic outlook improved, satisfaction with the way democracy was working also improved. These two nations are, however, the exception. Only France, Mexico and South Korea experienced an increased satisfaction. By contrast, democratic dissatisfaction increased in 14 of the assessed nations, staying about the same in the remaining 10.

The new report suggests that global democratic backsliding is likely not due to an ideological affinity for authoritarianism, but a desire to try new political ways to stimulate change in a system perceived as unable to deliver the desired outcomes.

Charles Marsh
Charles has a Masters Degree in Global Politics. He worked as the UNPA Campaign's intern in New York in 2018. In 2021, he became a founding Director of Democracy Without Borders-UK.
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