An expert’s point of view on a current event.
May 24, 2021, 8:29 a.m.
Everywhere you look, people complain about the prospects of democracy. Headlines warn of increasing Chinese authoritarianism, Russian interference and democratic relapse around the globe. For the 15th consecutive year, Freedom House’s annual flagship report has confirmed that political freedom is on the decline. But the rising mood of pessimism about the future of democracy is not justified. Despite the resilience of autocracy in Russia and China and the undoing of democratic success stories in countries like Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela, the long-term future of democracy is much better than most believe. In truth, the so-called modernization theory proves to be correct: Economic development brings with it a growing level of education, information, travel and other experiences that improve people’s knowledge, awareness and intelligence. This “cognitive mobilization”, as some researchers call it, inspires and enables people to act purposefully and think for themselves instead of accepting the authority and wisdom they have received. In short, development brings about changes in values that are highly conducive to the emergence and survival of liberal democracy.
These claims will surprise anyone familiar with the deconsolidation thesis – one of the most famous democratic doomsday theories of our time – which holds that popular support for democracy is declining worldwide, especially among the younger generations. Growing numbers, in turn, are said to advocate the rule of strong men and favor stubborn authoritarian populists, as voters have done in both long-standing democracies like the United States and more recent ones like Brazil. Allegedly in the name of the people, these leaders smash opponents and restrict freedoms, as did the Hungarians Viktor Orban and the Turk Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which leaves only an illusion of the accountability of the people. The deconsolidation thesis contradicts the optimistic but longstanding belief that once democracy takes root in a country, usually after several genuinely competitive electoral cycles, it is consolidated and is therefore unlikely to be ousted.
The deconsolidation thesis, however, has two shortcomings. For one, proponents choose the facts to make their point clear. Two strong supporters of this idea, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, paint a terrible but overdramatic picture: In the United States, it is said, the percentage of those who consider it “essential” to live in a democracy is falling from 72 percent The generation 30 percent born before World War II among millennials. They are also seeing a worldwide surge in support for leaders who “don’t have to worry about parliament or elections”. But the bigger picture does not show a general decline in global support for democracy. In the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, I show that support for democracy has remained unchanged at 75 percent from 1990 to the present day. This is evident from surveys conducted in both 1994-1998 and 2017-2020, and the age differences account for tiny variation. While enthusiasm for democracy decreased in 15 countries, another 27 increased.
More importantly, trying to measure “support for democracy” is simply the wrong indicator to use to gauge a population’s affinity for democracy. This is true for one simple reason: people’s ideas about what democracy actually means are confusingly different in countries with different cultural backgrounds. For example, over 40 percent of people in Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria and Zimbabwe believe that “obedience to rulers” is an “essential” feature of democracy, while over 30 percent of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia and Iran say the same from the same distribution of income. Trying to reconcile their competing definitions of something as nuanced as democracy is foolhardy and misses the big picture.
My analysis of decades of public opinion data from the World Values Survey shows a tectonic cultural transformation beneath the surface of the “storm and stress” of social and political life around the world. Slowly but steadily, emancipatory values that prioritize universal human freedoms, individual decisions and an egalitarian emphasis on equal opportunities are replacing authoritarian values that emphasize respect and conformity. These attitudes – not people’s support for something as broad as democracy – are a better signal to judge a population’s commitment to democracy and its liberal principles. While this transformation has so far advanced furthest in Western societies, the trend seems to be global in nature and affect all regions of the world to different degrees.
In most of the places we have survey data for, emancipatory values are on the rise – a circumstance that should lead younger generations to feel more committed to democratic principles. Support for these values in the Middle East, while slower and more limited than in any other region, increased from 24 percent in 1960 to 38 percent in 2018. Over the same years, support for these values in Ukraine rose from 25 percent to 43 percent percent. In Brazil the jump was 31 percent to 51 percent. World leaders are the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, where we estimate support for emancipatory values increased from 45 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 2018. In addition, when young people adopt these underlying values of freedom, authority, and the individual’s role in society, the worldviews associated with them tend to persist. They become lifelong habits of the mind and heart, not fashions that are discarded at the whim.
Since durability is the goal of institutions, most political regimes do not change most of the time. But beneath the surface of stagnant autocracies, cultural change is slowly gathering with warmth and potential energy. The cross-generational rise of emancipatory values is gradually leading to a structural contradiction between authoritarian systems of government and human aspirations for individual freedom, autonomy and opportunities. Over time, these misunderstandings between regime and culture come under increasing stress. For example, dictatorships fell in Portugal, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan, as the improvement in the standard of living and the improvement in education led to emancipatory values, which in turn increased the mass pressures for democratization. Over time, the structures of a regime become too undemocratic in relation to the values of society, and the separation becomes clearer over time.
Available data from around the world support this argument: regimes tend to be democratic in relation to popular support for emancipatory values. Similar data from the 1970s and 1980s also show this pattern. Interestingly, at that time there was a group of “incongruent” countries – including Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay – whose regimes were much more autocratic than the (relatively emancipatory) values of their respective populations. It is no coincidence that all of these countries have since gone over to democracy.
There is no guarantee that values will evolve or move in an emancipatory direction. Short-term economic and political factors can lead to illiberal cycles in public sentiment, as we have seen in India, Hungary and Poland. These mood swings can move regimes in autocratic directions, as we have seen all too often during the current global democratic recession. But they should be understood as they normally are: detours and digressions, not irreversible declines that resist broader public opinion, attitudes and values.
In addition, autocrats are not always helpless in the face of modernization and the simultaneous rise in emancipatory values. In order to bury emancipatory values under the soil of nationalism and religion, autocrats and populists write narratives about national fates and geopolitical missions. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to lead a “sovereign democracy” whose Orthodox legacy is a bulwark against Western depravity, while Chinese President Xi Jinping extols one-party rule as a central element of Chinese development (without, of course, the economic growth that comes with the Embrace) of the market). Our survey data shows that such a strategy significantly slows down the liberating consequences of modernization. However, the emancipatory effect of cognitive mobilization remains evident and turns out to be stronger than the forces that counteract it. In China, support for emancipatory values has risen from 33 percent among the least educated to 55 percent among college graduates. Authoritarian writings on modernity can slow down the emancipatory effects of modernization, but not stop them: Neither German National Socialism, Italian fascism, Japanese militarism nor Soviet communism survived the 21st century, although they firmly believed in the predetermined triumph of these models to have. While the fate of the loyalty cults sponsored by autocrats in China, Russia and elsewhere has not yet been decided, time is not on their side.
The global democratic trend over the past 120 years reflects the success of modernization, making more and more knowledge, information and awareness available to ordinary people. As such, the commitment to emancipatory values has increased and enabled the modern mass public to demand and defend freedoms. As these groundbreaking empowerment trends spread and accelerate, the long-term opportunities lean in favor of democracy and against autocracy – despite recent headlines in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Belarus and elsewhere.
This is not to deny that even mature democracies are currently sailing in troubled waters, and authoritarianists seem willing to use force to get their way. However, the current challenges to democracy are unlikely to stifle its long-term rise. The broader horizon of the past twelve decades supports this optimistic view. For real Democrats, this is not a reason for complacency, but on the contrary a call to fight harder for their cause, precisely because this is anything but hopeless.
A longer version of this article appears in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy.