Skip to main content

Are People Losing Faith in Democracy?

A new analysis of popular opinion in 49 nations shows increasing acceptance of authoritarian rulers.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Guillermo Arias/Getty images)

The election of a president with authoritarian tendencies, plus the consolidation of power by elected leaders in such nations as Turkey, has left political thinkers pondering a fundamental question: Are humans losing faith in democracy?

New research suggests the answer is too complicated for comfort. Its analysis of public opinion in 49 countries finds ballot-box-based rule remains very popular. However, citizens are increasingly receptive to the notion of other, undemocratic forms of government.

“Levels of support for democracy are high and stable across most parts of the world,” South African political scientists Cindy Steenekamp and Pierre du Toit write in the Journal of Public Affairs. “However, support for various authoritarian regime types is steadily increasing.”

The researchers compared data from the World Values Survey, a large global project that measures the values, beliefs, and motivations of ordinary people. They focused on the past four “waves” of data collection, which took place in 1995–98, 1999–2004, 2005–2009, and 2010–2014.

Participants were presented with four political systems, and asked whether each was “a very good, fairly good, fairly bad, or very bad way of governing this country.” They were 1) “Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections;” 2) “Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country;” 3) “Having the army rule;” and 4) “Having a democratic political system.”

The researchers found support for democracy is strong and stable over time, receiving endorsement from around 90 percent of respondents for the past two decades. During that same period, however, they also found a rise in support for the three undemocratic systems they listed.

Somewhat surprisingly, given widespread reports that people have less trust in experts, the undemocratic option that received the most support was rule by that class. Just over 56 percent of participants endorsed this idea (calling it either “good” or “fairly good”) in the most recent wave of data collection, up from 52.6 percent in the 1990s.

The largest increase in support was for “rule by a strong leader.” It increased from 35.8 percent in the late ’90s to 41 percent in the most recent survey. Support for military rule also rose over that period, from 17.2 percent to 20.4 percent.

du Toit and Steenekamp point to “three general sets of factors that could plausibly have shaped these attitudinal changes.” The first is the perception that democratically elected leaders are more likely to be corrupt, enriching themselves at the expense of the citizenry. They argue the 2008 global financial crisis “deeply undermined” the legitimacy of democratic regimes.

The second is the political polarization fostered by the Internet, which allows people to read only news that appeals to their existing prejudices. This has helped create “deeply divided societies” and “opened up space for authoritarian forces to regain the initiative.” The final factor is the rise of international terrorism, which has left many people fearful and increased the appeal of a strong, protective leader.

“Perceptions of such threats are likely to contribute to attitude that favor regime types which seem to promise more certainty,” the researchers conclude, adding that this could come in the form of “rule by the military, experts, or strong yet unaccountable leaders.”

Keep that in mind the next time a power-hungry politician attempts to scare the hell out of you.