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Polls: Democracy remains important to people but trust erodes

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At this year’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit and discussion on the state of global democracy, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in collaboration with Latana, a Berlin-based consumer insights firm, released the Democracy Perception Index (DPI) for 2022. Covering 75% of the world’s population in over 50 countries, it is the largest survey in the world which explores the perceptions of common citizens.

Despite the recent unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia and a continuing rise of authoritarianism around the world, the survey found that 84% of respondents said that it is important to have democracy in their country. This compares even more favorably than the 78% recorded in 2020 and 81% in 2021

Democracy remains important to people globally 

Democracy is very important for people right across the board. There are a few standouts worth noting. In Greece, the birthplace of modern democracy, 96% of respondents returned a positive answer when questioned. Even in Iran, which the Freedom House Country Report 2022 rated as “not free” based on political rights and civil liberties, 61% of those surveyed said that democracy was important to them.

Percentage of people who say democracy is important in their country. Source: DPI report, p. 7.

But despite the universal belief in the importance of democracy across the globe, it appears trust in the performance of democratic institutions themselves is being eroded, in part by worries over economic inequality. Other surveys conducted recently, in particular the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, have picked up on this trend. According to the Edelman survey, the aforementioned erosion has been most widely felt in the US, UK, Spain and Germany. With institutions in these countries trusted by less than half of the population. 

Social media and democracy

When it came to the influence of social media in our democratic system, the DPI results were mixed but not unsurprising. Overall across the world, 55% of people believe that social media has a positive influence on democracy while only 29% had an opposing viewpoint. But the regional breakdown was very different. While 36% of people in Europe were far more critical of the influence of social media, those surveyed in Asian and Latin American countries tended to be more supportive, at 21% and 17% respectively.

In the United States, respondents were very critical of the influence that social media platforms have on democracy. A majority of Americans, 52% in total, believe they have a negative impact. This has grown considerably from 36% in 2020, and 47% last year. Perhaps the events of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol Complex have concentrated minds. 

Again, the Edelman survey picked up on this regional pattern. They found a similar level of distrust to be prevalent, with just 37% of total respondents saying they trust social media as a news source across the 28 countries it surveyed. 

The desire for democracy is a strong as ever 

Despite the strong support for democracy across the surveyed countries, a considerable 41% of people said in the DPI poll that there is “not enough democracy” in their country. Dissatisfaction with the level of democracy is highest in Latin American countries and lowest in Asia. This sentiment has also increased most in European countries such as Greece, France, Austria, and the Netherlands since the previous survey in 2021. In Turkey, where President Erdogan has been in power since 2014, the figure stands at almost 75%. 

People don’t think their countries are very democratic. Source: DPI report, p. 9.

While European countries struggle with the perception of democracy, there is one surprising finding. According to the survey, a huge 83% of Chinese respondents believe their country is very democratic, putting the one-party state at the top of the list. However, research has found that regime-related survey questions in autocratic countries do not produce authentic figures due to self-censorship of respondents. Thus, some of the survey results, such as this, probably cannot be taken at face value. 

While this year’s DPI survey illustrates the very difficult global environment for democracy as a whole, with the rise of authoritarianism, perceived inequalities and war considered top threats, there are some encouraging signs which cannot be overlooked. Even in challenging times, the overwhelming number of people continue to believe in democracy. In particular, they cherish their right to freedom of speech, fair elections and equal rights closely, which our global democratic system affords them. In the face of global challenges, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine or threats to Taiwan from China, the vast majority support the democratic world taking punitive action. 

It is clear that citizens in the countries surveyed expect renewed leadership from leading powers to strengthen the state of and improve their perception of global democracy. In the words of Alliance of Democracies Founder, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “people living in democracies want to see greater unity to push back against rising autocratic powers”. 

Colm Lehane
Colm Lehane is a communications and media professional who currently works as a Content and Social Media Consultant with Democracy Without Borders. He holds a Master's Degree in Government and Public Policy from University College Cork.