Last week, the New York Times reported on research by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk that saw a decline in popular support for democracy. (The paper it talked about is not out yet, but Foa and Mounk published a related article this summer). This surprised me, since support for democracy and opposition to authoritarianism is strongly related to education, and average levels of education are rising throughout the world. Also, there seems to have been a general cultural drift, in which political movements of the left, right, and center all claim to be working to give more power to the people. Of course, their actions might sometimes damage democracy, but it seems like everyone appeals to democracy as a principle.
I looked at the World Values Survey (the major data source for Foa and Mounk), which contains several general questions about forms of government:
"Various types of political systems are described below. Please think about each choice in terms of governing this country and indicate if you think that it would be a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing [your nation]:
a. Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections
b. Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country
c. Having the army rule
d. Having a democratic political system"
The questions are included in four waves of the WVS: 1994-8, 1999-2004, 2005-9, and 2010-14. The prevailing view seems to be that support for democracy may be weak and unstable at first, but that once democracy is firmly established, you don't go back, so I limited it to nations in the latest wave that have a history of stable democracy. I calculated a summary of opinions--ratings of democracy minus the ratings of all the others. For example, in 1994 the average rating was 3.4 (4="very good," .... 1= "very bad") for democracy, 2.1 for experts, 1.5 for a strong leader, and 1.3 for the army, for a score of 3.4-2.1-1.5-1.3=-1.5. The actual value is not meaningful--interest is in how it compares to other nations, with higher numbers meaning more support for democracy relative to the alternatives. The results:
The United States ranked highest in support for democracy in 1994-8, but lowest in all subsequent waves. In the other nations, there was fluctuation with no clear trend--the United States stands out for its sustained decline.
Rule by the army or a strong leader are clearly non-democratic, but having experts make decisions is more ambiguous. People could be thinking of something like the Federal Reserve Board in the United States, which is accountable to the public in some sense. So I computed an alternative of rating of democracy minus rating of rule by the army or a strong leader.
The results are pretty much the same, although the contrast between the United States and everyone else is a little more striking. So the United States is different--it's certainly had a larger decline in support for democracy, and is arguably the only one of these nations to have had a decline.
Why? One possibility would be poor results--if democracy isn't delivering the goods, people will lose confidence in it. This might be a factor in some of the changes, like the decline in support for democracy in Spain between 2005-9 and 2010-4, when that country was hit hard by the recession. But it declined substantially in the United States between 1994 and 1999, when the economy was doing well, the country wasn't involved in any wars or threatened by foreign powers, and crime was dropping. Another possibility is that people are reacting against political polarization and conflict. Although people sometimes recall the 1990s as a period of relative good feeling, the news was dominated by a long series of investigations of Bill Clinton starting in 1994 and culminating in nearly party-line votes on his impeachment in 1999, with a little time out for a government shutdown in 1995. That sort of thing has continued in the 21st century. Another factor may have been increasing deference to the military making people more receptive to the idea of rule by the army. Although my knowledge of the recent political history of most of the other nations is sketchy, I think that the United States is the only one that's had a dramatic increase in polarization. The position of the military is certainly unique. Overall, we seem to have a case of American exceptionalism, but not in a good sense.