Globally, Broad Support for Representative and Direct Democracy

A deepening anxiety about the future of democracy around the world has spread over the past few years. Emboldened autocrats and rising populists have shaken assumptions about the future trajectory of liberal democracy, both in nations where it has yet to flourish and countries where it seemed strongly entrenched. Scholars have documented a global “democratic recession,” and some now warn that even long-established “consolidated” democracies could lose their commitment to freedom and slip toward more authoritarian politics.

A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey finds there are reasons for calm as well as concern when it comes to democracy’s future. More than half in each of the nations polled consider representative democracy a very or somewhat good way to govern their country. Yet, in all countries, pro-democracy attitudes coexist, to varying degrees, with openness to nondemocratic forms of governance, including rule by experts, a strong leader or the military.

A number of factors affect the depth of the public’s commitment to representative democracy over nondemocratic options. People in wealthier nations and in those that have more fully democratic systems tend to be more committed to representative democracy. And in many nations, people with less education, those who are on the ideological right and those who are dissatisfied with the way democracy is currently working in their country are more willing to consider nondemocratic alternatives.

At the same time, majorities in nearly all nations also embrace another form of democracy that places less emphasis on elected representatives. A global median of 66% say direct democracy – in which citizens, rather than elected officials, vote on major issues – would be a good way to govern. This idea is especially popular among Western European populists.

These are among the major findings of a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 41,953 respondents in 38 countries from Feb. 16 to May 8, 2017.

The survey reveals that large numbers in many nations would entertain political systems that are inconsistent with liberal democracy. For instance, when asked about a system in which experts, not elected representatives, make key decisions based on what they think is best for the country, a median of 49% across these 38 countries say this would be a good way to run their nation.

Unconstrained executive power also has its supporters. In 20 countries, a quarter or more of those polled think a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts is a good form of government. This type of regime is particularly popular in several nations where executives have extended or consolidated their power in recent years, such as the Philippines, Russia and Turkey.

While military rule is the least popular political system tested on the survey, even this finds some support across the globe. Notable minorities in many nations consider it a good way to govern, and half or more express this view in Vietnam, Indonesia, India and South Africa.

Table of Contents

  • Overview: Globally, Broad Support for Re presentative and Direct Democracy
    Shallow commitment to representative democracy
    Those in wealthier, more democratic nations are more committed to representative democracy
    Even in rich, well-established democracies, nondemocratic models find some support Education, ideology key drivers of support for nondemocratic alternatives
    Satisfaction with democracy’s performance is tied to partisanship, the economy
  • Many unhappy with current political system
    Mixed reviews of the way democracy is working
    Lack of trust in national government
    People in more rapidly growing economies more trusting of government
  • Democracy widely supported, little backing for rule by strong leader or military
    Many publics want a direct say
    Technocracy has its champions
    Some support for rule by strong leader
    Significant minorities support military rule
  • Acknowledgments
  • Methodology
  • Appendix: Political categorization


By Richard Wike, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes and Janell Fetterolf.

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