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Rising global dissatisfaction with democracy, Cambridge report reveals

Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 Report Summary & Analysis

Mar 14, 2020

We might be living on the fumes of democratic legitimacy. According to the University of Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 report—a global dataset on citizen attitudes on their satisfaction with their institutions based on four million people in 3,500 surveys—satisfaction with democracy has collapsed in recent decades. 

This report follows reports and studies including Freedom House’s In the World 2018 report, which suggests that “democracy is in crisis.” These findings also fit comfortably with reports such as the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2019 report, which finds that social media, once a liberating tool, now favours authoritarianism, surveillance, electoral interference, and ‘sharp power,’ which is being projected by Russia and China to distort and disrupt information and public opinion in liberal democracies. 

This report focuses on attitudes about democratic satisfaction and highlights global, regional, and country trends. For instance, in ‘Anglo-Saxon countries,’ including the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the proportion of citizens expressing dissatisfaction with democratic performance has doubled since the 1990s.

In the United States, satisfaction was relatively robust until the 2008 financial crisis, when the country began to witness a notable and persistent decline in citizens’ evaluation of the performance of democratic institutions. In the United Kingdom, dissatisfaction began to rise sharply amid the Brexit stalemate between 2016 and 2019. 

Europe is characterized by fluctuations in civic contentment, with periods of governability and economic crises collapsing satisfaction with democratic performance. The reinvigoration of populist movements and parties in Europe—which scholars like Benjamin Moffitt posit emerged in the mid-1990s—is symptomatic of a period of deteriorating satisfaction. 

There is a widening divide between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. As the report puts it, “If Western Europe is disillusioned, the former communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, many of which joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007, are experiencing a steady consolidation of faith in their new political institutions.”

Another region explored in the report is Latin America, where democratic consolidation has largely been elusive and civic confidence in domestic institutions appears to be steadily eroding. The region now sees its lowest level of satisfaction with institutions since the start of public opinion surveys, particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Resurgent populism in Brazil and Mexico and widespread protests in Chile and Columbia appear to be symptomatic of the region’s deeper ills. 

According to the report, one notable exception is South Asia, where democratic confidence is comparatively more robust. However, there have been fluctuations over time, and civic confidence is not always enduring, particularly amid periods of financial disruption and uncertainty, such as the case with the emerging coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to explaining these trends, the report seeks to unpack them. What factors lead democracy and legitimacy to come under strain? With respect to the longstanding democracies, the report underlines the role of financial crises, foreign policy shortcomings, and the reinvigoration of populist movements, which have “eroded the perception that democratic institutions produce governance that is balanced, far-sighted and effective.” When it comes to developing democracies, the report gives primacy to corruption, criminality, and state fragility. 

An implication of the report is that citizens’ attitudes towards the civic performance of their polity are informed by what they observe, namely respect or hostility towards liberal-democratic norms and responsiveness (or lack thereof) to public concerns, including but not limited to economic security and living standards. 

Yet, it should be noted that the report misses salient dynamics, most prominently the role of disinformation and its pervasiveness, which scholars argue has wrought cynicism, disengagement, violence, and undermined voter confidence (Bartlett 2018; Moore 2018; Schwanholz, Graham, and Stoll 2018; Sunstein 2017).

The report also neglects dynamics like immigration, cultural changes, deepening partisan polarization and the rising incivility of online discourse. These dynamics figure prominently in the expanding body of literature on the causes of resurgent populism and may be instructive for explaining democratic malaise more braodly.

March 14th, 2020 

Written by Cassidy Bereskin

Research Assistant, DDRH

Third Year Undergraduate, Political Science