Liberal Democracy: Why we may be losing it

A study of worldwide data on public support for liberal democracy shows its foundations are brittler than we think

Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne

Published 1 December 2016

Is the election of Donald Trump simply the way democracy works, or is the whole liberal democratic system under threat from a wave of citizen disenchantment? According to two political scientists who are paying attention to what the public are saying, we should be worried.

Long-running regular surveys around the world are showing falling support for democracy and a growing hankering for authoritarian rulers across the liberal democratic West, especially among the young. But rather than just citizens venting their spleen, research now suggests the surveys may be an early warning signal that democracy is heading for serious trouble.

In a paper due to be published in January in the Journal of Democracy, University of Melbourne political scientist Dr Roberto Stefan Foa and Dr Yascha Mounk, from Harvard University, show the public dissatisfaction with democracy we are seeing in surveys across the US and Europe was also present in public surveys in Venezuela and Poland years before their democracies were undermined by authoritarian regimes.

Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) demonstrators crowd the main city streets of Taipei in a strong show of disapproval of the current KMT-led government’s economic policies. Picture: Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket via Getty Images

While the researchers acknowledge that democratic institutions in countries with long-established liberal democracies may be more resilient in the face of growing public dissatisfaction, they caution it would be folly to ignore the signs. Just look at the US.

A year ago Dr Foa and Dr Mounk warned in a New York Times article they were worried about the consequences of falling support for democracy in the US. Now, US voters have elected as President a man who during his campaign openly attacked key democratic institutions such as the judiciary and media, and even suggested he wouldn’t accept the election result if he lost.

Reading the warning signs

“It’s been a bit surreal,” says Dr Foa. “Trump has astonished everyone, and it’s strange in a way that I’m astonished when Yascha and I had been writing and warning about this.

“Back then we were writing about something that was hypothetical, but it is becoming very real. We’ve done something that rarely happens in social sciences – we’ve spotted a change coming, and watched it come closer and closer before it now hits us.”

Their data is mainly based on the World Values Survey, based in Sweden, that polls people across 100 countries. The US 2011 survey result showed that the proportion of people describing democracy as a “bad” way to run the country was increasing and running at over 20 per cent among 16-34-year-olds. Support among Americans for military rule over democracy had risen from 1-in-16 in 1995 to 1-in-6 by 2011.

Graph showing what percentage of different age cohorts agreed that it was “essential” to live in a democracy. Data based on five waves of the World Values Survey. Source: Dr Roberto Foa and Dr Yascha Mounk/ Artwork: Sarah Fisher

What they have found is evidence that waning public support for democracy can be an early indicator that democracies are becoming brittle and vulnerable to populist takeover, despite traditional indicators suggesting that civil freedom and democracy are healthy in a country. It is a radical idea that casts serious doubt over previous notions that once established and consolidated, a liberal democracy is here to stay. They coined the term “deconsolidation” to describe the process that is going on when public support for democratic systems is falling.

They analysed data from surveys across the world to identify countries that were “deconsolidating” with support for democracy falling markedly, and then compared that with traditional measures of the health of democracy such as the Freedom House score and the Centre for Systemic Peace’s Polity indices that measure the strength of civil liberties and democratic institutions.

Worryingly, they found that deconsolidation appeared to have predicted a later withering of democracy in some countries. And they found that deconsolidation was happening across the liberal democratic West.

“The surprising observation was that many of the countries where deconsolidation is happening are Western countries,” Dr Foa says.

He is careful to distinguish deconsolidation from actual democratic breakdown. “Desconsolidation is idea that support for democracy is eroding in a country, it doesn’t actually mean the institutions of democracy are no longer there.”

One example they point to of where the survey data had appeared to indicate a later erosion of democracy is Venezuela. In the 1980s Venezuela was seen as a successful two-party democracy, scoring highly on the Freedom House score and Polity indices. But by 1995 the Latinobarometer survey was finding that 46 per cent of Venezuelans agreed that democracy wasn’t solving the country’s problems and 81 per cent said they’d welcome a “strongman” leader.

In 1998 left-wing populist Hugo Chavez was unexpectedly elected and democratic freedom in the country has gone backwards. The story is similar in Poland where Lech Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party clamped down on media freedom and the courts. Hungary and Greece have gone down the same path.

A man holding a portrait of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez poses for a photo during a pro-government rally in Caracas, Venezuela on October 1, 2016. Picture: Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“This suggests that close attention to the signs of deconsolidation can indeed function as an early warning system, alerting careful observers to the kind of deep-seated discontent with democratic institutions that is liable to prove deeply destabilising before long,” the researchers write.

Across Europe and elsewhere the World Values Survey shows support rising for authoritarian leadership, most markedly in countries including Germany, Spain, Argentina, South Africa and Taiwan.

A separate German survey found that more than 20 per cent endorsed the view that “what Germany now needs is a single, strong party that represents the people”. According to a French survey last year, 40 per cent of respondents believed the country should be put in the hands of “an authoritarian government”. Some 66 per cent supported the idea of having unelected experts enact unpopular but necessary reforms.

Tragedy and farce

Dr Foa says the hostility to democracy that the surveys are picking up reflects a real and justifiable frustration with the state of liberal democracy in the West.

“I think there is a process that has been taking place for 20-30 years now where people have disengaged from formal types of politics such as joining political parties and even turning out to vote,’’ Dr Foa says.

“Over the period of a generation the political elites have become very detached from the people. We now have career politicians and we have lobbyists and special interest groups having privileged access to our representatives. So people are justified in feeling frustrated, and in a real sense justified in feeling that Western democracies are less democratic than they use to be.”

He argues that the UK’s decision to put Brexit to the vote and the decision by the US Democratic Party to back an establishment Presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton are both examples of politicians failing to read the signs of frustration in the electorate.

So does this mean we are back in the 1930s that saw the rise of fascism in Europe?

“I don’t think so,” says Dr Foa. “History doesn’t so much repeat as rhyme, so I think we are looking at a similar period of anti-establishment politics and the weakening of liberal democratic values that we thought were untouchable.

Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) protest during Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to Gdynia, on November 29, 2016. Protesters demanded President Duda respect the law and stop breaking the Polish Constitution. Picture: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The main message from what we are seeing is that we shouldn’t be complacent about our democracies and democratic institutions. It was Karl Marx who wrote that history repeats first as tragedy and then as farce. The 1930s led to tragedy, but I think right now we are in the farce phase with the election of President Trump and the rise of figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK. But it is by not being complacent that I think we can avoid the worst possible outcomes.”

For Dr Foa and Dr Mounk, the prospect of populist and authoritarian movements might be the trigger that is needed for politicians to finally free themselves from special interest groups and pursue reforms to reinvigorate democracy. “In that sense the dangerous age of populism may harbour an opportunity for righting the ship of state after all,” they write.

“There is no consensus on what the drivers of populism are, or on how public policy might effectively combat them. That makes it all the more urgent for political scientists to study both the origins of democratic deconsolidation and the public policies that may potentially provide an antidote to it.”

Banner Image: Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer during the election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 8, 2016. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


Content Card Slider

Content Card Slider

Subscribe for your weekly email digest

By subscribing, you agree to our

Acknowledgement of country

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of the unceded lands on which we work, learn and live. We pay respect to Elders past, present and future, and acknowledge the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the Academy.

Read about our Indigenous priorities
Phone: 13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +61 3 9035 5511The University of Melbourne ABN: 84 002 705 224CRICOS Provider Code: 00116K (visa information)