Under the veil of democracy: What do people mean when they say they support democracy?

By Margaret Hanson, Hannah Chapman, Valery Dzutsati, and Paul DeBell

For many, the end of the Cold War and subsequent spread of liberal democracy around the globe heralded a lasting shift toward democratic hegemony. Today, however, two consecutive decades of spreading autocracy make clear that this post-Cold War democratic triumphalism was premature. Scholars broadly agree that we are now in the midst of a global “democratic recession” that threatens even the most established democracies.

Threats to liberal democracy have been attributed to rising populism in Western democracies, blunders in democracy promotion, deftness of new autocrats in using the mantle of “democracy” to cover up their true intentions and policies, and even individuals being ‘tired’ of democracy. However, irrespective of why democracies have recently experienced backsliding or transitioned into authoritarian rule, many share a common way by which autocrats have seized power: they were voted in democratically, then dismantled democracy from within.

Consequently, many scholars and policymakers point to survey data that indicate declining support for democracy worldwide with concern. This represents a shift away from a previous trend toward near universal self-assessed support for democracy across the world, and offers potential insights into the current democratic recession. If citizens' appetite for democracy has diminished, it could help explain democratic backsliding via the ballot box. However, there is significant debate — and studies have yielded conflicting results — when it comes to linking reported support for democracy to regime-level outcomes. How can we best navigate these conflicting findings?

Our work suggests that scholars should begin by taking a step back and more carefully evaluating how people understand the term “democracy.” Most surveys that evaluate support for democracy simply ask respondents to rate the degree to which it constitutes the best system of governance. Consequently, this approach assumes that respondents share the same underlying idea of what democracy entails. Yet, even political scientists and other experts do not agree on a single, overarching definition of democracy, and it is unlikely that ordinary people are any different. Moreover, modern autocracies frequently paint themselves as democratic, which could lead to confusion about what, exactly, constitutes democratic governance.

If people have different, limited, or even incorrect, conceptualizations of democracy, it means that survey questions which simply ask about individual support for democracy are not measuring the same underlying idea. As a result, we cannot accurately answer questions about the link between mass public opinion regarding democracy and outcomes like democratic backsliding via the ballot box. In other words, assuming that individuals share equal (and equally accurate) knowledge of democracy can lead researchers to make false or conflicting conclusions. Thus, we argue that in order to better understand current trends in democratic support worldwide, scholarship must first must pay greater attention to the meaning that people grant to the term “democracy.”

In our first paper on this topic, we demonstrate that variance in how individuals understand the concept of democracy is associated with significant and substantive differences in support for democracy. We then examine the relationship between the breadth and content of individuals’ conceptualization of democracy and their support of it, as well as the extent to which our findings hold in the face of alternative explanations, such as respondents’ level of education or the regime under which they live. First, we use indicators from the World Values Survey that ask what attributes respondents consider ‘essential’ for democracy to analyze the relationship between conceptual breadth and self-reported normative commitment to democracy. We find that a broader conceptualization predicts greater support for democracy. This is in line with previous research that suggests that the more informed individuals are about a specific political institution or idea, the more likely they are develop a worldview that favors it.

Second, we examine the relationship between different substantive conceptualizations of democracy and democratic support. Specifically, we examine the relationship between three common definitions of democracy — electoral, liberal, and redistributive — and support for life under democratic rule. Electoral and liberal democracy constitute procedural definitions of democracy. Electoral democracy simply requires competitive elections, while liberal democracy takes a more expansive view, and includes the civil liberties and rights that ensure that competition is meaningful. In contrast, redistributive democracy hinges on outcomes achieved through the reallocation of wealth, usually via social programs such as healthcare and poverty assistance.

We find that the specific elements of electoral and liberal democracy predict the greatest support for democracy. Although redistributive democracy is generally positively correlated with support for democracy, the results are less robust, suggesting that receiving material benefits from democracy (e.g., redistribution) may constitute an unstable basis for regime support. Alternatively, a redistributive understanding of democracy could drive support among some socioeconomic classes or in more unequal countries but not others. In contrast, prioritizing free and fair elections and the protection of rights is a consistently strong predictor of democratic support.

Finally, we find that these relationships remain consistent across diverse political contexts and in the face of alternative explanations. This finding is surprising, given that contemporary autocrats commonly position themselves as “democrats.” We also find that the differences in how people understand democracy are important for democratic support in addition to factors such as education, social trust, and economic situation thought to link public opinion and regime outcomes.

In short, how individuals understand democracy is a critical and consistent predictor of variation in support for democracy worldwide. Our findings here highlight how meaning-making processes employed by citizens in diverse contexts drive their support for abstract regime concepts. This suggests a much broader research agenda to uncover not just how much individuals claim to support democracy, but how they understand democracy and why they have developed this conceptualization. In other words, future research must dive deeper into the factors that shape how ordinary citizens understand this concept — a topic we’ve begun tackling in our next paper.

In addition, the critical importance of popular democratic conceptualization for identifying levels of democratic support raises questions concerning the way democracy is discussed in public discourse: how this discourse unfolds likely has a strong impact on public understanding and endorsement of democracy. Our analysis also suggests that these narratives do not coincide with a simple divide between democratically and authoritarian-governed states. Instead, we need to examine other contextual factors and how they may add (or fail to add) resonance to particular types of discourse regarding democracy.

The strength of particular conceptualizations in predicting regime support also highlights the extent to which public discussions, elite messages, and the media landscapes that mediate these processes may matter a great deal for regime outcomes. This suggests that going forward, scholars will need to investigate factors that shape how individuals receive and react to the information they receive about democracy and democratic rule. An increased focus upon these issues will help us better disentangle how public opinion matters for regime outcomes — including how to check the current trend toward more authoritarianism around the globe.

Release Date
Research Category