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Survey: One-Third of Republicans Favor Leaders Unchecked by Courts or Congress

A new global survey finds that right-of-center ideology and education affect support for democracy.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counterprotesters during a rally calling for the protection of Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8.
A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counterprotesters during a rally calling for the protection of Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid worries about the future of representative government, a new survey has found that global support for democracy remains strong, though those with right-of-center political views are more supportive of strong men unfettered by checks and balances.

A Pew Research Center survey of 38 nations published Monday found that more than three-quarters of respondents believed representative democracy was a good way to govern, and 66 percent said the same of direct democracy.

But globally less than half of respondents said they were satisfied with how democracy was working in their countries. And nondemocratic approaches found significant support as well: Forty-nine percent supported rule by unelected experts, and 26 percent supported rule by a strong leader without checks and balances.

“The level of support for some of the nondemocratic approaches, even in Western long-standing democracies, is notable,” said Richard Wike, one of the report’s lead authors. “If you’re looking at rule by the military or strong leader models, it’s minorities, but it’s significant minorities.”

Support for representative democracy is strong in the United States, with 40 percent committed to it and a further 46 percent less committed, meaning respondents also expressed support for a nondemocratic approach. Only 7 percent indicated support for only nondemocratic forms of government.

But there are partisan divides, both in the United States and in Europe. The survey asked respondents to express whether or not they believed the statement: “A system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts would be a good way to govern our country.”

Just 17 percent of Democrats agreed with that statement, but one-third of Republicans did.

Education is a key indicator of support for nondemocratic approaches. Some 24 percent of Americans without a high school degree said military rule would be good for the country — compared with just 7 percent of those with high school degrees.

That holds true in Europe, too. UK Independence Party sympathizers in Britain and supporters of the Italian center-right populist party Forza Italia, for example, favored unchecked leaders in higher proportions than those of more centrist or leftist political leanings.

Democracy polls worst in Latin America, where just 19 percent of respondents expressed commitment for representative democracy, with 45 percent expressing less commitment. Almost a quarter indicated that they preferred a nondemocratic form of government.

Of the different forms of government included in the survey — representative democracy, direct democracy, military rule, rule by a strong leader, and rule by experts — military rule was the least popular globally. But at least half of respondents in Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and South Africa said they considered military rule a good option.

While the Pew study only captured current attitudes and did not look at change over time, other recent studies have shown that today’s youth have less confidence in democracy than previous generations. Millennials in Europe and the United States are less likely to view elections and civil rights as important, in what researchers are calling a “crisis of democratic legitimacy.” Rising inequality, economic stagnation, and political gridlock have contributed to the sense among young people that democracy doesn’t deliver on its promises.

Since 2006, the number of healthy liberal democracies around the world has shrunk, in what Stanford University scholar Larry Diamond referred to in 2015 as an ongoing “democratic recession.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr