Is Western democracy in crisis?

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
February 02, 2020, 2:15 PM UTC

This week saw the first publication of data from the YouGov-Cambridge Democracy Project, a new programme of research being developed by the YouGov-Cambridge Centre in collaboration with Dr Roberto Stefan Foa at the Cambridge University Bennett Institute.

The data formed part of a ground-breaking report on global attitudes to democracy, which was published on Thursday to coincide with the launch of a new Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge.

For Western liberals, at least, the report gives some cause for concern, suggesting more people in the advanced economies are dissatisfied with democracy than at any time in the last twenty-five years. Analysis was based on a unique dataset, combining more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020, asking citizens whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. The final part of the dataset comprised a new set of cross-country surveys produced by the YouGov-Cambridge Centre.

According to findings, the proportion of people dissatisfied with the performance of democracy has risen by almost 10% globally since the 1990s. This trend has been particularly pronounced in the “consolidated”, high-income democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens overall.

Clearly this research only relates to levels of satisfaction with the performance of democracy, rather than fundamental attitudes or commitment to it as a theory of state. But other parts of the same YouGov-Cambridge polling give some potential warnings in that direction.

Respondents were also asked to say whether various types of political system would be good or bad ways of governing their country, with fieldwork including national samples in ten countries, namely the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Percentages were high across the board for those with a positive view of “having a democratic political system”, ranging from 74% in Finland to 90% in Spain. Nonetheless, in all survey-countries except for Spain and Italy, this left a fifth or more choosing “Don’t know”, or expressing a negative view of democracy in principle.

Perhaps even more starkly, there were significant portions who expressed a positive view towards “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with [parliament/congress] and elections”. Exactly half of Italians described this option as varyingly good, with a similar 45% of Danish respondents saying the same. In other Western polities, the figures were lower but still significant, including roughly a quarter of respondents in Britain, France and the United States.

For many, of course, it may be that these questions merely act as another proxy for general voter frustration, similar to that of questions about democratic satisfaction. They may also suffer a certain amount of hypothetical bias among people with no practical experience of living without democracy. But it is surely telling, nonetheless, that one in four Brits, Americans and French, and roughly one in two Italians and Danes, could respond positively to the suggestion of what effectively amounts to having a dictator. Or that such large minorities currently reject the positive view of democracy.

See results

Methodology: fieldwork was conducted online between 11 October-14 December 2019. Total sample sizers were: Britain=1620; France=1008; Germany=1006; Denmark=1027; Sweden=1019; Norway=1019; Finland=1021; Spain=1133; Italy=1007; USA=1252. Results have been weighted and are representative of the adult population aged 18+.

Image: iStock

YouGov-Cambridge Centre

The YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research is a joint research centre run by YouGov and the Cambridge University POLIS Department, which promotes in-depth collaboration between pollsters and academic experts. Alongside research and events, the Centre contributes to teaching at the University and provides several postgraduate scholarships each year.
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