Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Data Show Democracy Is Thriving

Don’t believe the talk of democratic decline. The world’s belief in self-government is stronger than ever. 

By , a political culture research professor at Leuphana University.
Voters line up to cast their ballots on Super Tuesday March 1, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Voters line up to cast their ballots on Super Tuesday March 1, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Everywhere you look people are bemoaning democracy’s prospects. Headlines warn about rising Chinese authoritarianism, Russian meddling, and democratic backsliding around the globe. For the 15th consecutive year, Freedom House’s annual flagship report has decried that political freedom is in retreat. But the swelling mood of pessimism about democracy’s future is unwarranted. Despite the resilience of autocracy in Russia and China, and the undoing of democratic success stories in places such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, the long-term future of democracy is much brighter than most imagine. In truth, so-called modernization theory is proving correct: Economic development brings expanding levels of education, information, travel, and other experiences that enhance human knowledge, awareness, and intelligence. This “cognitive mobilization,” as some researchers call it, inspires and empowers people to act with purpose and think for themselves, rather than accept received authority and wisdom. Development, in short, brings value change that is highly conducive to the emergence and persistence of liberal democracy.

These claims will surprise anyone familiar with the deconsolidation thesis—one of the most prominent democratic doomsday theories of our time—which posits that popular support for democracy is in a worldwide decline, especially among the younger generations. Growing numbers, in turn, are said to embrace strongman rule and favor tough-talking authoritarian populists, as voters have in both long-standing democracies, such as the United States, and newer ones, such as Brazil. Supposedly in the name of the people, these leaders crush opponents and restrict freedoms, as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have done, leaving only an illusion of popular accountability. The deconsolidation thesis contradicts the optimistic but long-standing belief that once democracy takes root in a country, usually after several genuinely competitive electoral cycles, it becomes consolidated and therefore unlikely to be displaced.

The deconsolidation thesis suffers from two flaws, however. For one, the advocates cherry-pick the facts to make their point. Two strong backers of this idea, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, paint a dire but overdramatic picture: In the United States, they say, the percentage of those who believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy falls from 72 percent among the generation born before World War II to 30 percent among millennials. They also note a worldwide surge in support for leaders who do not “have to bother with parliament or elections.” The full picture, however, shows no overall decline in support for democracy worldwide. In the recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, I show that support for democracy has actually remained static at 75 percent from the 1990s to today, according to surveys taken both in 1994-1998 and in 2017-2020, and accounting for age differences produces minuscule variation. While 15 countries saw enthusiasm for democracy decrease, another 27 saw it rise.

More important, attempting to measure “support for democracy” is simply the wrong indicator to judge a population’s affinity to democracy. This is true for a straightforward reason: People’s notions of what democracy actually means are bewilderingly different across countries with different cultural backgrounds. For example, more than 40 percent of people in Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe believe that “obedience to rulers” is an “essential” characteristic of democracy, while more than 30 percent of those in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, and Iran say the same of the equal distribution of income. Attempting to square their competing definitions for something as nuanced as democracy is foolhardy and misses the wider picture.

My analysis of decades of public opinion data from the World Values Survey lays bare a tectonic cultural transformation beneath the surface “storm and stress” of social and political life around the world. Slowly but steadily, emancipative values—which prioritize universal human freedoms, individual choice, and an egalitarian emphasis on equality of opportunity—are replacing authoritarian values that stress deference and conformity. Those attitudes—not people’s support for something as broadly conceived as democracy—are a better signal to judge a population’s commitment to democracy and its liberal principles. While this transformation has made its furthest strides so far in Western societies, the trend appears to be global in nature, affecting all regions of the world at varying rates.

In most places for which we have survey data, emancipative values are on the rise—a circumstance that should lead to younger generations who feel a stronger commitment to democratic principles. Approval of these values in the Middle East, while slower and more limited than in any other region, has increased from 24 percent in 1960 to 38 percent in 2018. Over the same years, support for these values grew in Ukraine from 25 percent to 43 percent. In Brazil, the jump was from 31 percent to 51 percent. Leading the world are the Nordic countries, notably Sweden, where our estimates show a growth in support for emancipative values from 45 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 2018. Moreover, when young people adopt these underlying values concerning freedom, authority, and the role of the individual in society, the associated worldviews tend to endure. They become lifelong habits of mind and heart, not fashions discarded at whim.

Since durability is the purpose of institutions, most political regimes do not change most of the time. Yet beneath the surface of stagnant autocracies, cultural change gathers slowly with heat and potential energy. The generational ascension of emancipative values gradually produces a structural contradiction between authoritarian systems of government and human aspirations for individual freedom, autonomy, and opportunity. Over time, these regime-versus-culture mismatches come under growing stress. For instance, dictatorships fell in Portugal, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan as improving living standards and increased education gave rise to emancipative values, which in turn fueled mass pressures to democratize. Over time, a regime’s structures become too undemocratic relative to society’s values, and the disconnect grows more glaring with time.

Available data from around the globe supports this argument: Regimes tend to be democratic in proportion to its people’s support for emancipative values. Similar data from the 1970s and 1980s also exhibits this pattern. Interestingly, there was a group of “incongruent” countries at the time—including Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay—whose regimes were much more autocratic than the (relatively emancipative) values held by their respective populaces. By no coincidence, all these countries have since transitioned to democracy.

There is no guarantee that values will keep evolving or keep running firmly in an emancipatory direction. Short-term economic and political factors may generate illiberal cycles in public moods, as we have seen in India, Hungary, and Poland. These mood shifts can move regimes in autocratic directions, as we have seen all too often during the current global democratic recession. But they should be understood for what they typically are: detours and digressions, not irreversible declines resistant to wider public opinion, attitudes, and values.

Moreover, autocrats do not always stand helpless in the face of modernization and the concurrent rise in emancipative values. In order to bury emancipative values under the soil of nationalism and religion, autocrats and populists compose narratives about national destinies and geopolitical missions. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to lead a “sovereign democracy” whose Orthodox heritage is a bulwark against Western depravity, while Chinese President Xi Jinping extols single-party rule as central to China’s development (omitting, of course, that economic growth came with the embrace of the market). Our survey data shows that such a strategy slows down the liberating consequences of modernization to a considerable extent. Yet the emancipatory effect of cognitive mobilization remains apparent and turns out to be stronger than the forces acting counter to it. In China, support for emancipative values goes from 33 percent among the least educated to 55 percent among university graduates. Authoritarian scripts about modernity can slow but not stop the emancipative effects of modernization: Neither German Nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese militarism, nor Soviet communism survived the 21st century, in spite of firm beliefs in these models’ preordained triumph. While the fate of the allegiance cults promoted by autocrats in China, Russia, and elsewhere is yet to be decided, time is not on their side.

The global democratic trend over the past 120 years reflects the success of modernization at steadily making more knowledge, information, and awareness available to ordinary people. As such, commitment to emancipative values has increased, empowering modern mass publics to demand and defend freedoms. Since these groundbreaking empowering trends are spreading and accelerating, the long-term odds are tilted in favor of democracy and against autocracy—despite the recent headlines in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Belarus, and elsewhere.

This isn’t to deny that even mature democracies are currently navigating troubled waters, and authoritarians seem readier to use force to get their way. But the momentary challenges to democracy are unlikely to stifle its long-term rise. The wider horizon of the last dozen decades supports this optimistic view. For genuine democrats, this is not a reason for complacency but—on the contrary—a call to struggle harder for their cause, precisely because it is far from being hopeless.

A longer version of this essay appears in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Christian Welzel is a political culture research professor at Leuphana University in Lüneberg, Germany, and the former president of the World Values Survey Association.