The Centre for the Future of Democracy was launched in January 2020 to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by democratic politics over the coming century. Based at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, the goal of the Centre is to understand the prospects for democracy in broad historical and international perspectives in order to identify different possible trajectories for democracy around the world.
The Centre will to look at how democratic decisions get made and how can they be made differently. How can the consent of losers and outsiders be achieved? How can new social divisions be bridged? How can the use of technology be brought under democratic control?
In its first report, the Centre studied how people’s satisfaction with their democracies has changed between 1973 and 2020. Using a pooled dataset of some 3,500 surveys, it found that dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies. The share of the population across the globe “dissatisfied” with democracy has grown by around 10% points, from 47.9% in the mid-1990’s to 57.5% in 2019. The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005 when just 38.7% of citizens were dissatisfied.
Large democracies – including United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom,
South Africa, Colombia, and Australia – are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. Developed countries show the largest growth in dissatisfaction.
Several small, high-income democracies – Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions, with satisfaction in some reaching all-time highs. In democracies in South Asia, Northeast Asia, and above all in Southeast Asia, levels of civic contentment are significantly higher than in other regions – it’s not clear why. In Southeast Asia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe satisfaction with democracy has been rising in recent years.
Dissatisfaction is variously ascribed to:
- growing political polarisation, economic frustration, and the rise of populist parties in the West;
- endemic challenges of corruption, intergroup conflict, and urban violence in developing countries;
- specific economic and political events – the financial crisis of 2008, the eurozone crisis beginning in 2009, the European refugee crisis of 2015. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in October 2008 global dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy jumped by around 6.5 percentage points
- country-specific events: eg the series of scandals exposed by the “Lava Jato” corruption probe has seen public dissatisfaction in Brazil reach record highs;
- Latin America generally had increasing satisfaction from 2003 to 2013, but has since slipped back dramatically to 75% dissatisfied.
In the UK, the data show three distinct phases:
- The 1970s: strikes, power cuts, periods of minority government, an embarrassing IMF bailout, and the start of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland.
- 1990s to 2008: Good Friday agreement, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, and“cool Britannia”
- 2008 onwards: financial crash, parliamentary expenses scandal, Brexit impasse
The authors do note that answers to the survey questions could bear a number of interpretations. They primarily tell how well citizens perceive their political system to be performing. They offer a weaker basis for inferring support for liberal or democratic values: individuals may be strong believers in liberal democracy and yet dissatisfied with the performance of such institutions in practice – or on the flipside, be satisfied with the institutions under which they are governed, even though such institutions fall well short of accepted democratic standards.
The report’s conclusion is that:
“If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic coordination in the Eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.”
Overall, there seem to be a few issues with the report:
- There are major methodological issues associated with aggregating different attitude surveys in different countries and continents (though to be fair, this issue is discussed in some detail in an Annex).
- There are very many fewer datasets covering Sub-Saharan African countries
- The statistical significance of the trends is not explored.
- The report doesn’t define what constitutes a democracy – Russia, Venezuela and Turkey are described as “no longer democratic”, which their leaders would obviously dispute.
- It’s not clear whether what is measured is dissatisfaction with democracy per se, with the democratic system (eg is first past the post democratic, or Trump losing the popular vote?) or, perhaps more likely, just dissatisfaction with the prevailing regime. The authors note: “citizens evaluate the performance of their polity not only by its adherence to liberal-democratic norms, but also for its ability to offer valued outputs such as political and social stability, economic growth, and a sense of collective purpose and pride”.
- The link with political events is not the result of analysis, but of the authors’ judgement; despite admitting that the surveys don’t tell us why people are dissatisfied, some personal views are presented to give explanations.
- The exceptionalism of Asia is not really explored.
Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile effort to understand changes in underlying societal opinion, an area too often overlooked by forecasters. There are many intriguing charts, particularly for the different regions (despite the above reservations). It will be interesting to see what the Centre focusses on next.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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