The People Have Spoken: Global Views of Democracy

A report by USIA's Office of Research, January 1998

Executive Summary and Introduction

Executive Summary

Democracy means many things to people around the world. USIA
polling in major countries in recent years shows how publics view
democracy and their own governments:

 Definitions of democracy vary from country to country, sometimes
taking in the Western ideal of "liberal democracy," sometimes not.
The hunger for the "rule of law," however, appears nearly

 In countries making the transition from less democratic to more
democratic forms of rule, the desire for stability, order, and
especially economic security may often be as strong or stronger
than the desire for freedom and democracy. This is true in such
diverse regions as eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,
Latin America, and Africa.

 In more mature democracies like India, the United States, and
Japan, disquiet with certain aspects of freedom and individual
rights can co-exist with a fundamental commitment to the current
system of government.

 In country after country there is a gap -- sometimes quite broad --
between the democratic ideals the public feels are important and
the practice of these ideals.

 Many governments receive relatively low performance marks
and/or confidence ratings from their constituents, yet these
feelings of dissatisfaction are not always associated with overall
discontent with their governmental order. This may in part be
explained by the divergence between what the governed expect
from their leaders and what those leaders can actually accomplish.

 While trust in most public institutions is generally low worldwide,
the military in those same countries tends to receive top
confidence marks. The reasons seem as varied as the societies
under investigation -- a reflection of priorities (in addition to
defending the homeland) such as maintaining order or protecting

 World publics appear convinced that one of the gravest threats to
democracy today comes from within -- from the corrosive effects
of corruption on officials at all levels.

 A set of shared attitudes and values among a nation's citizens
seems to be the sine qua non for any democracy to function well or
even to survive.


With the battle between capitalism and socialism over for now, a new global issue has seized the
imagination of social scientists. Whether posed as the "clash of civilizations" or "the end of
history," the debate has been engaged: Whither democracy? Some argue that democracy is
spreading irreversibly, others that it is in retreat. Are there objective measures that can gauge
where democracy stands today?

Freedom House in New York issues an annual "scorecard" assessing how nations around the world stack up to its yardsticks. Its reports try to measure such
variables as the degree of freedom of the press and speech and the openness of electoral
procedures. The U.S. State Department does something similar with its yearly reports on human
rights and on religious freedom. The Heritage Foundation publishes an annual review rating the
extent of economic freedom, country by country.

This report, however, analyzes attitudes about democracy held by the people who live in countries in every region of the world.

Wrestling with Basic Concepts

There was a time, not so long ago, when most people could easily say what democracy means. They saw the world largely in terms of black and white. Nations like the United States, western European countries, and Japan were democracies. Places that called themselves "democratic republics" or "people's republics" were automatically excluded, as were dozens of other countries that demonstrably lacked mechanisms for the public to control its leaders.

Today, historic definitions of democracy -- "government by the people, either directly or through elected representatives; rule by the ruled; majority rule" -- seem too limited to embrace all the values that have accrued to the idea of "democracy" over the centuries.

Consider the following propositions, many or all of which might be considered essential components of democracy in modern times:

The judicial system treats everyone equally.
There is freedom to criticize the government openly.
Honest elections are held regularly.
One can choose from several parties and candidates when voting.
The media (broadcast and print) are free to reports news and commentary without government censorship.
The rights of minorities are protected.
There is equality of opportunity between men and women.
Free health care and free education are available to all.
There is freedom to practice any religion openly.
There is economic prosperity in the country.
The government guarantees economic equality among its citizens.
The government provides for [guarantees] the basic material needs of its citizens.

Some of these attributes focus on "political" values of democracy: the rule of law, civil rights, an
open and pluralistic society. The overarching significance of liberty in these propositions lends a
name to the associated concept of "liberal democracy." The "social-welfare" values of the other
attributes shape a somewhat different concept, that of "social democracy." To confuse matters
even more, one expert suggests we are now witnessing "the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in
international life -- illiberal democracy." He refers to the co-option of outwardly or formally
democratic practices by nondemocratic rulers.

Democracy seems to demand a certain level of economic development, even prosperity, to flourish. Moreover, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has argued: "Democracy is impossible without private ownership because private property -- resources beyond the arbitrary reach of the state --provides the only secure basis for political opposition and intellectual freedom."

However, as Paul Goble has written: "Democracies by themselves cannot make anyone rich, and free markets
do not by themselves guarantee a democratic form of government. The two may prove to be
mutually supportive, but they are not one and the same thing."

Can a "fundamentalist" state be a democracy? That is unlikely, given the lack of pluralism in such a state. In states ruled by a secular ideology, such as communist China, organized religion itself represents a threat: an independent authority which may undermine the legitimacy of the rulers.

One of the major problems confronting democracies in the world today is that of corruption. Present in any form of government, graft and corruption are especially troubling in a democracy because they undermine the equal access to authority that is one hallmark of democracy. They also erode public trust in institutions.

Democracy and Public Opinion

It is striking how many world publics these days seem to express dissatisfaction with their own freely elected leaders. In nation after nation public opinion surveys show low or falling confidence in public institutions and leadership.

The question is: Do these attitudes reflect a dissatisfaction with democracy in general, or with the way in which democratic governments perform their duties, or do they only show lack of confidence in specific leaders and institutions but retention of trust in democracy more generally?

This paper examines public attitudes in various countries worldwide on different aspects of democracy. USIA has not polled on all the relevant issues in all countries. Absent from this report almost entirely, for example, are western Europe, the Near East, and much of Asia. Discussion of issues is limited for other areas. Some countries -- including the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Haiti -- receive special treatment because they represent particularly timely or interesting case studies. The chapter on Latin America is longer than most because of the rich data available for that region. What remains is, if not exhaustive, at least a good indication of where democracy stands in many parts of the world.

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The People Have Spoken