The future of democracy: an interesting idea

How will governments change?  Will the 21st century see more or fewer democracies? A fascinating new Pew Research survey examines global attitudes towards governmental structures, and offers a glimpse into several possible futures.

Let me draw out what I think of as some key findings, then offer some thoughts about where this might all be headed.

To begin, Pew put forward several models of modern government and asked if respondents would support each.  They included, in order of descending popularity, representative democracy, direct democracy, rule by experts, rule by a strong leader, and a military regime.

The good news (if you like democracy) is that about one quarter of the human race really likes democracy.  The less good news is that almost one half approve of democracy, but also enjoy at least one of the above alternatives:

Respondents who say a representative democracy is good but also support at least one nondemocratic form of government are classified as “less-committed democrats.”… About twice as many (median of 47%) are less-committed democrats.

Yet, taken together, “[s]ome form of democracy is the public’s preference… A global median of 78% back government by elected representatives.”  Indeed, we can go further:

Direct democracy, a governing system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues, is supported by roughly two-thirds of the public around the world…

Of the alternatives, technocracy is the most favored, although disliked in equal measure:

when asked whether a governing system in which experts, not elected officials, make decisions would be a good or bad approach, publics around the world are divided: 49% say that would be a good idea, 46% think it would be a bad thing.

Economics and temporal comparisons are important correlates.  For example,

Publics that have experienced a higher level of economic growth over the past five years tend to have more confidence in their national government to do the right thing for their country.

Education shapes how people view military rule (the less schooling, the more one likes a junta, broadly).

Wealthier nations tend to prefer representative democracy, as do those rated as “more democratic” according to a scale from The Economist:

Yet there’s some variation within those nations, with some being quite open to nondemocratic regimes, especially rule by experts:

There is some fascinating geographical unevenness in these results:

Commitment to representative democracy is strongest in North America and Europe. A median of 37% across the 10 European Union nations polled, as well as 40% in the United States and 44% in Canada, support democracy while rejecting nondemocratic forms of government.

Australia is also in the group.  Within that group, “Sweden (52%) shows the strongest level of commitment of all countries surveyed, with roughly half holding this view.”  In contrast,

roughly one-in-five or fewer are committed to representative democracy in Latin America (median of 19%), sub-Saharan Africa (median of 18%) and the Asia-Pacific (median of 15%).

If we look at other governmental forms, regional diversity continues to play a key role:

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.

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…

[government by a strong leader] is particularly popular in several nations where executives have extended or consolidated their power in recent years, such as the Philippines, Russia and Turkey…

Notable minorities in many nations consider [military rule] a good way to govern, and half or more express this view in Vietnam, Indonesia, India and South Africa.

And yet

Overall, people in the Asia-Pacific region are the most happy with their democracies. At least half in five of the six Asian nations where this question was asked express satisfaction…. [and] People in sub-Saharan Africa also tend to be more satisfied than others around the world with the performance of their political system.

Demographical divisions matter, but vary widely.  Consider these attitudes towards strongman rule, for instance:

By two-to-one (46% to 23%) Vietnamese ages 50 and older are more likely than those ages 18 to 29 to say military rule would be very good for their country…

Notably, roughly half of both Indians (53%) and South Africans (52%), who live in nations that often hold themselves up as democratic exemplars for their regions, say military rule would be a good thing for their countries. But in these societies, older people (those ages 50 and older) are the least supportive of the army running the country, and they are they are the ones who either personally experienced the struggle to establish democratic rule or are the immediate descendants of those democratic pioneers.

So where does this take us for the rest of the 21st century?

  1. Representative democracy looks like a median way forward.  People want other governmental arrangements, but they all circle around this Western model.  R.D. might end up as a kind of consensus norm.  Not just Churchill’s “‘worst form of government, except for all the others”,  but a central option, across which competitors balance.
  2. Direct democracy has a vast if silent constituency.  Possibly there’s no space for it in the Overtown Window – so far.  We should keep an eye out for emerging projects.  Small seeds might already be visible, like open and digital government projects.
  3. Despite the popularity of populism, a lot of people are open to rule by experts.  We should expect new forms and movements for this… often in opposition to populism.  And perhaps in certain regions:

Asian-Pacific publics generally back rule by experts, particularly people in Vietnam (67%), India (65%) and the Philippines (62%). Only Australians are notably wary: 57% say it would be a bad way to govern, and only 41% support governance by experts.

More than half of Africans surveyed also say governing by experts would be a good thing for their country.

Obviously there’s a lot more to this discussion. We haven’t really discussed ideology, nor gender, religion, recent history, or the impact of technology, etc. But this Pew report is a great starting point for thinking about the future – and globally.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in politics, research topics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The future of democracy: an interesting idea

  1. Mark Rush says:


    Home and up and about. All good. 4 weeks till my eye clears

    Thot if u in a discussion w Jon Rauch if brookings and The Atlantic. Video available at U will need to scroll down

    In short we discussed the hyperdrmocratization of the political process. 50 years of reform have wiped out pol parties and other middlemen in politics. The result is chaos. Similar to the proliferation of fake news tx to technology

    So I wondered whether our hopes for democratization if higher ed might not cause similar chaos.

    More to come. Talk soon

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Simeon Every says:

    Hungary is a crazy outlier for rule by experts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *