Does public support for democracy defend a country from autocrats? Not necessarily

After years of democratic decline and retreat, are citizens now fighting back? In recent weeks, thousands of Czechs have gathered in Prague to defend democratic institutions, and a million or more in Hong Kong have marched to demand a greater say in choosing their government.

Does it matter whether the public actually wants democracy?

Since the time of Plato, political thinkers have argued that a pro-democratic public is necessary for a stable and vital democracy. But others have countered that these opinions are just cheap talk that have little impact on political outcomes.

In new research, forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, I examine what 30 years of cross-national survey data can tell us about this debate.

To research this question, I collected all the cross-national survey measures of public support for democracy or opposition to authoritarian regimes I could find. I ended up with a database of 3,765 national opinions about democracy, obtained from 1,390 separate polls conducted in 151 countries from 1988 to 2017.

I then applied a statistical procedure that pulls together these data, adjusts for the differences due to question wording and fills in gaps in coverage due to years in which no survey was fielded. The result: measures of democratic support that vary across multiple countries but also across time.

These types of measures can provide greater insight into the relationships between public support and democracy than a snapshot of countries taken at one point in time. Then, by combining my measures of democratic support with measures of liberal democracy from the Varieties of Democracy project, I was able to test whether democratic support has an effect on subsequent democratic change.

Yes, public support for democracy does affect the strength of the democracy …

I find that an increase in democratic support has a small but noticeable impact on subsequent democratic change. This effect accumulates over time — so a one-unit increase in democratic support prompts a six-unit boost in the level of democracy (on a scale from 0 to 100) after 30 years.

These findings suggest that it does matter what the public thinks about democracy. Higher popular support for democracy is associated with expanding democratic rights and strengthening democratic institutions; lower support is linked with the erosion of these rights and institutions.

… But only in democracies

I then examined whether public support has different effects in democratic vs. autocratic countries. This tell us whether support helps democracy to survive in already existing democracies — or whether it helps democracies emerge in the first place. Here’s what I found: The beneficial effects of public support are limited to already-democratic countries.

So public support helps sustain democracy, but it doesn’t appear to push autocrats to liberalize their political systems. Autocracies are not only less responsive to public opinion than democracies, they are also more able to repress dissent.

Is it just the economy?

Could these findings mask the effects of economic forces? Perhaps both democracy and public support rise and fall with the economic tides.

In fact, I find that rates of economic growth do not explain the link between public support and democracy. I also apply my statistical technique to the cross-national survey data set to measure public “satisfaction with the way democracy works,” which is a more performance-driven evaluation of democracy’s worth. These evaluations do not play an independent role in sustaining democracy.

Rather, the data suggest it is principled support for democracy that helps democracy survive. This finding chimes with a theory that political systems are more stable when their rules and procedures are “congruent” with the values of the public, rather than when the system generates material or policy benefits for citizens.

What does this mean for democratic backsliding?

My research also helps us understand the roots of democratic backsliding — when an elected government erodes democratic institutions and principles. High levels of public support for a democratic system help protect these democratic institutions and principles. In contrast, low levels of public support provide favorable conditions for the emergence of populist authoritarian leaders who attack democratic institutions. Examples of these cases from my data set include major democracies such as South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and India.

Will protests make a difference?

What are the implications for the Czech Republic, Hong Kong and other places where citizens have taken to the streets to demand or defend democracy?

Although my research does not focus on protests directly, it suggests that citizens are likely to be more successful in supporting an existing democracy — the Czech Republic, for instance — than in installing democracy where it doesn’t already exist — such as Hong Kong.

Indeed, researchers are divided over whether democracy protests do aid in the transition from autocracy to democracy. As the case of the South African anti-apartheid movement illustrates, it might take years for a popular movement to successfully overthrow an authoritarian regime. On the other hand it can take as little as one election for the public to defend democracy — as happened, for example, in 1998, when Slovakian voters ejected the increasingly authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar.

Christopher Claassen (@chris__claassen) is a lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow.

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