A rift in democratic attitudes is opening up around the world
IS DEMOCRACY ON the rise or in decline? Proponents of either claim could find supporting evidence in this week’s headlines. In Belarus and Thailand protesters are trying to topple draconian regimes. Meanwhile, the leader of the free world wants to restrict postal voting and China is rounding up dissidents in Hong Kong.
Looking across the globe, however, academics generally agree that democracy is in a slump. One much-watched barometer is the World Values Survey (WVS), a poll published twice a decade. We combined its data with those from the European Values Survey to study trends in 98 countries from 1995 to 2020. Our analysis found that support for autocrats has indeed grown in most parts of the world, but this effect is weakest in healthy democracies, despite their recent flirtations with populism.
Since 1995 the WVS has asked people to rate several types of government as good or bad for their country. Among the options are “having a democratic political system”, “having the army rule” and “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”. In the latest wave, only about a tenth of respondents were willing to describe democracy as a bad thing. However, nearly a quarter of them said that having the military in charge is a good thing, and more than two-fifths were in favour of strongmen who would ignore the outcomes of elections.
When analysing changes in these sentiments, we compared them with countries’ actual levels of political freedom, as measured by the University of Gothenburg. On average, we found a big increase in support for despots in flawed democracies, but little change in places with lots of political freedom. For example, Mexico’s approval for a strongman leader has surged from 39% to 70% over the past two decades, whereas New Zealand’s ebbed from 17% to 15%. Contrary to widespread fears about the death of democracy in the West, the share of people who think it is a bad system has fallen in the past decade in ten of the 15 most wealthy and free countries.
Using the WVS’s individual-level data, we built statistical models which predict the attitudes of a hypothetical person in a given country and year. We estimated the opinions of a 40-year-old person with middling education, ideology and income, to test the impact of a change in a single characteristic on their overall beliefs.
In highly democratic countries, our model thinks the probability that such a middling person would favour a strongman rose from 29% to 33% between 1998 and 2020. And in countries with unhealthy democracies, the increase for such a middling person has been far greater, rising from 44% to 62%. The growth has been particularly high in Latin America, South-East Asia and former Soviet states.
Like previous analysts of the WVS, we found that young people tend to be the most susceptible to autocratic preferences. Right-wing and less-educated people also lean that way. But in countries where enthusiasm for despots is rising strongly, the growth seems to be similar across demographic groups. Whatever is driving people towards strongmen is affecting entire countries, not just cohorts within them. ■
Sources: World Values Survey; European Values Survey; V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg;The Economist
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Drifting apart”
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