Dark Days Ahead? Global Satisfaction With Democracy Hits An All Time Low


Since 2005, satisfaction with democracy has seen such a sharp decline, some call the time period since then a “global democratic recession.”


CAMBRIDGE, England — Human history is littered with examples of political systems that effectively nullified the average citizen’s rights or ability to have their voice heard. From the elaborate monarchies of centuries ago to fascists in Europe just 80 some odd years ago. Even today, there are many nations in which citizens have hardly any say in their government’s activities. In the face of these inequalities, a democracy is by far the most enlightened, balanced, and fair form of government. Unfortunately, an unsettling new study finds that in both developed nations, and on a global basis, dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all time high.

Among citizens of developed nations (defined as Europe, North America, East Asia and Australasia), dissatisfaction with democratic politics has increased from a third to half of all citizens over the course of the last 25 years. Also, across the entire planet, the percentage of people who say they are “”dissatisfied” with democracy has increased from 47.5% in the mind 1990s to 57.5% today.

According to the research team from Cambridge University, 2019 represented “the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since researchers began recording global political sentiment in 1995.

Overall, data on over 4 million people was used for the study, combining over 25 international survey projects spanning 154 countries between 1995 and 2020. Some data going back to 1973 was also used in the analysis.

“Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise,” says the report’s lead author Dr Roberto Foa, from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), in a release. “We find that dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed countries.”

“We need to move beyond thinking about immediate crises in politics and take a longer view to identify possible trajectories for democracy around the world. This means distinguishing what is essential to democracy, what is contingent and what can be changed,” adds professor David Runciman. “The Centre for the Future of Democracy will be looking at the bigger picture to see how democracy could evolve.”

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Since 2005, satisfaction with democracy has seen a rather sharp decline, so much so that some call the time period since then a “global democratic recession.”

Moreover, many of the world’s largest and successful democracies, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Brazil, have reached their highest lever ever of democratic dissatisfaction. In the U.S. alone, discontent with democracy has risen by a third since the 1990s. Other countries such as Japan, Greece, and Spain have also seen prominent increases in democratic unrest.

Interestingly, the study’s authors noted an “island of democratic contentment” in Europe encompassing Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. In these countries, satisfaction with democracy is approaching all time highs.

“We found a select group of nations, containing just two percent of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system,” Dr. Foa comments.

Major events, catastrophes, or scandals often cause people to become more dissatisfied; researchers cited the 2015 refugee crisis and the 2008 financial crisis as two examples of major news stories that almost immediately had an impact on levels of democratic satisfaction. In fact, the global financial crisis in October 2008 caused global dissatisfaction with democracy to jump up by 6.5%.

On the other hand, people also tend to be more supportive of democracies when democratic nations come together to solve a larger problem.

“Our findings suggest that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, and update their assessment in response to what they observe,” Dr. Foa says.

The study’s findings regarding the U.S. are particularly troubling. Less than half of U.S. citizens are happy with their democracy right now. Making matters worse, dissatisfaction is growing on an annual basis.

“Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere,” Dr. Foa adds. “But for the United States it may mark an end of exceptionalism, and a profound shift in America’s view of itself.”

“The rise of populism may be less a cause and more a symptom of democratic malaise, without this weakening legitimacy, it would be unthinkable for a US presidential candidate to denounce American democracy as rigged, or for the winning presidential candidate in Latin America’s largest democracy to openly entertain nostalgia for military rule,” Dr. Foa concludes. “If confidence in democracy has been slipping, it is because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming. To restore democratic legitimacy, that must change.”

The study can be found here.

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