U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy begins on Thursday, bringing with it a focus on the state of global democracy. But a recently released study has instead turned its eyes to the state of mind of those within these democracies and has found a troubling trend in their commitment to democratic ideals.
The nonpartisan Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank, surveyed 1,127 Australians and 2,097 Britons earlier this year about their personal definitions of democracy. Most respondents referenced “freedom and human rights, elections and procedures, and having a voice in government.”
The Pew study also found that respondents’ ability or inability to define democracy correlated with views on autocracy. For example, of Australians who could define democracy, only 17% expressed approval of a government in which a strong leader could “make decisions without interference from courts or parliament” compared to 41% of those who could not.
The phrase “by the people, for the people” appeared in multiple responses. However, “the people’s” overall satisfaction with the democratic system in their countries appears to be in question, with only 6% of Britons and 3% of Australians designating democracy as the best system in their responses.
One British man went as far as to describe it as the “least worst system.” Slightly more — 5% and 7% of Austrialians and Britons, respectively — characterized democracy according to its failings.
The study builds on a larger narrative of increasing dissatisfaction with democratic systems. An earlier Pew report found that 56% of respondents across 17 advanced economies — Australia and the U.K. included — expressed a desire for fundamental changes to or a complete overhaul of their present democratic systems.
According to Richard Wike, Center Director of Global Attitudes Research at Pew, any number of circumstances — from economic anxieties to the status of certain freedoms — can sway public faith in democratic structures.
“Democracy essentially is a popular concept,” Wike said. People tend to like it, but they often aren’t as committed to it as you might think, or you might hope.”
Speaking at an online panel discussion earlier this week, Wike added: “People who say their country’s done a poor job of dealing with the pandemic….(and others) who don’t think they have free speech, for example, are much more unhappy with the way democracy is working,”
However, Dr. Seema Shah, Head of Democracy Assessment for the International IDEA and another panelist, spoke to a silver lining to democracy’s current plight:
“In democracies and non-democracies, what we saw is that protests, for instance, have never been as prevalent as they are today. Over the course of the pandemic, some 80% of countries around the world had some protest movement ongoing despite restrictions on the freedom of expression and of movement,” said Dr. Shah.
“People are not willing to sit back and be silent about things that they are, that they are not satisfied about.”