🦋 What do people mean when they say they support democracy – and why should we care?

Amid concerns of declining support for democracy worldwide, recent research points to a way forward. Hannah Chapman, Margaret Hanson, Valery Dzutsati, and Paul DeBell show that how people define democracy influences their support for it

The decline of democracy around the world has become a significant concern for scholars and policymakers alike. Diverse contributions to this Science of Democracy series have tackled the problem. Today, the number of authoritarian regimes continues to rise. Established democracies – such as those in the United States, Hungary, and Poland – have experienced substantial democratic backsliding. Current scholarly and public consensus holds that we are in the middle of a global 'democratic recession.'

Experts have pointed to numerous threats to liberal democracy. Rising populism in Western democracies, failures in democracy promotion, and the cooptation of the term democracy by authoritarian governments have all been cited as reasons for democratic backsliding. However, regardless of why democratic backsliding occurs, autocrats often seize power in similar ways. Once they are voted in democratically, they dismantle democracy from within.

Consequently, many scholars and policymakers are concerned with signs of declining support for democracy worldwide. If citizens' appetite for democracy has diminished, it could help explain why they vote in candidates who have taken anti-democratic stances. It may also offer insights into the current democratic recession.

What do people mean when they say they support democracy?

Our recent article suggests that to understand global democratic support, we must first uncover what people mean when they say they support democracy in the first place. And that is because public views of democracy may not be well-informed or accurate.

Individuals in long-established democracies often lack knowledge of the fundamental components of democracy or of their own nation’s democratic system. For example, an annual survey of Americans’ civic knowledge shows that less than half of those surveyed could name all three branches of government.

The term 'democracy' may be even murkier in countries with limited or no experience of it. For example, in a survey of Russia, over 30% of respondents were unable to articulate a definition of democracy. 7% had never even heard of the term at all.

In a survey of Russians, over 30% of respondents were unable to articulate a definition of democracy. 7% had never even heard of the term

It may surprise you that, in an 'age of democracy', people may be confused about what democracy entails. Yet our research shows that this lack of understanding is far from uncommon. As a result, there may be a disconnect between people’s understanding of democracy and their support for it.

The importance of how people define democracy

Our research also suggests that how people define democracy has important consequences for democratic support. First, the more complex an individual’s understanding of democracy, the greater their support for it. Respondents who identify more basic features of democracy – such as free elections, protection of rights, and gender equality – express greater support for democratic rule in their country.

Why is complexity associated with greater democratic support? Previous research has demonstrated that, in general, the more information people have about political institutions and ideas, the more likely they are to pay attention to it and to reject its alternatives. In short, the more you know about democracy, the more likely you are to support it.

The more you know about democracy, the more likely you are to support it

Second, the content of an individual’s definition of democracy matters for support. Democracy is a complex idea and holds different meanings for various individuals. Textbook definitions of democracy typically prioritise free, fair, and competitive elections. The protection of political and civil liberties are core features of a modern democratic system. However, others may view democracy in terms of political or economic outcomes, such as state aid for the unemployed or taxation of the rich. How does the content of an individual’s understanding influence their support?

A crucial concept with a complex, contested nature

We find that people who view democracy primarily in terms of free and fair elections and the protection of political and civil liberties are more likely to express support for democratic rule. Conversely, those who view economic outcomes, such as income redistribution, as essential to democratic values show less consistent support for democratic rule. These findings highlight the complex and contested nature of this crucial concept.

Importantly, our research suggests that the importance of democratic conceptualisation on support matters regardless of the type of regime in which people live. However, respondents who live in democratic countries, on average, appear to support democracy more than respondents in less democratic societies.

Why should we care?

How people define democracy is one of the most important predictors of democratic support. These findings highlight the extent to which public discussions, elite messages, and factors that mediate how people internalise them may matter a great deal for regime outcomes.

Today’s autocrats frequently disguise their actions in terms of 'democracy'. For example, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has long touted the country’s regime as 'sovereign democracy'. Chinese leader Xi Jinping often refers to the country’s 'whole-process people’s democracy' despite China ranking near the bottom of international measures of freedom and democracy.

Xi Jinping often refers to China’s 'whole-process people’s democracy' despite the country ranking near the bottom of international measures of freedom and democracy

Given the propensity of authoritarian leaders to claim the term democracy, it should come as no surprise that many people living in non-democratic societies have a difficult time defining democracy accurately.

However, our research does leave room for hope. Educating people about the accurate meanings of democracy – of which there are thousands to choose from in the ever-growing lexicon of democracy – may increase their support for democratic rule, regardless of the political context in which they live. This, in turn, may help bolster democracies against backsliding and support pro-democracy movements from below in non-democracies.

In the future, scholars will need to investigate factors that shape how individuals receive and react to the information they get about democracy and democratic rule. An increased focus on popular definitions of this concept, and well-justified normative cores of it, will help us build a more comprehensive and constructive understanding of how public opinion matters for regime outcomes – including how to check the current global trend toward authoritarianism.

No.88 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Hannah Chapman Hannah Chapman Theodore Romanoff Assistant Professor of Russian Studies and Assistant Professor of International and Area Studies, University of Oklahoma More by this author
photograph of Margaret Hanson Margaret Hanson Assistant Professor of Political Science, School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University More by this author
photograph of Valery Dzutsati Valery Dzutsati Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kansas More by this author
photograph of Paul DeBell Paul DeBell Associate Professor of Political Science, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado More by this author

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One comment on “🦋 What do people mean when they say they support democracy – and why should we care?”

  1. Most people's reality defines other consciousnesses as existing. The effect of these others on one's own existence is a problem. Some find that others are useful, some find them harmful.

    Those who find other's influence useful have designed a means for collecting the views of those others when making a decision. When one collects the views of most who are affected by that decision , we call that means democratic, respecting the majority and giving it the privilege of making the decision.

    The critical variables in a democracy are defining those who are to participate in a decision, and designing a process that allows this participation. Democracy demands that all affected by the decision are given the opportunity to participate. Democracy also demands that the process of participation result in an unambiguous collective result that all agree to honor.

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