In May, the Alliance of Democracies (AoD), in collaboration with Latana, published its sixth annual “Democracy Perception Index” (DPI). Surveying 53 countries that comprise over 75 percent of the global population, the study is the largest of its kind dedicated to individual citizens’ perspectives on democracy. Founded by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the AoD receives funding from western governments and affiliated think tanks. Perhaps surprisingly–especially given this orientation–the survey found that only around half of citizens in the United States and parts of western Europe viewed their country as a democracy.
The study recruited more than 50,000 participants to complete a 32 question online survey over a seven week period between February and March of this year. Published ahead of the 2023 Copenhagen Democracy Summit, the survey covered four categories of questions: state of democracy, threats to democracy, global politics, and democracy under COVID.
State of democracy: The report noted the widespread belief in the importance of democracy as a principle, but general disillusionment with the levels of democracy at home. Globally, only 57 percent of respondents believed they lived in a democracy, though 84 percent felt as though democracy was important.
Threats to democracy: Worldwide, respondents noted economic inequality and corruption as the two largest threats to democracy. Respondents in the United States listed inequality and corruption as principal threats to democracy as well, but raised the additional fear of unfair elections.
Global politics: The survey demonstrated a divergence in the opinion of the “west and the rest.” While respondents in nearly all countries surveyed had a negative perception of Russia, those in the Global South tended to support maintaining economic ties despite its invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, those in the west tended to support severing economic ties to China in the event of a war over Taiwan, while citizens of the Global South were generally opposed.
Democracy under COVID: Globally, citizens tended to approve of their government’s handling of the pandemic, but were wary of its repercussions for democracy. In the United States, 63 percent of respondents thought the government responded well to the crisis, while just over half believed the government had done too much to limit freedoms as a result.
When asked how democratic citizens considered their country to be on a scale of 1-10, only around half (54 percent) of U.S. citizens indicated a rating of 7 or higher – the study’s threshold for the belief the State was democratic. The DPI revealed similar perceptions in other western European countries, including France (49 percent), the Netherlands (53 percent), Belgium (55 percent), and the UK (56 percent). Comparatively, 73 percent of Chinese citizens viewed their country as a democracy.
Residents’ perceptions of democracy in their countries were likely impacted by beliefs about whether the government acted in their interests – another one of the survey’s critical findings. When asked to choose if their government usually acts in the interest of a “small group of people” or “most people,” 58 percent of U.S. citizens responded that the government serves the few. In China, on the other hand, only 10 percent believed the same.
The survey did not ask respondents to specify the “small group” to which they were referring; however, 70 percent of U.S citizens agreed with the statement that their democracy is “threatened by the influence of global corporations,” and 65 percent noted similar concern about the role of Big Tech.
As the study mentioned, the results were qualified by respondents’ access to freedom of information and exposure to different forms of propaganda.
Implications for U.S. Policymakers
Domestically, the survey is further evidence of public awareness of the structural flaws that exist within U.S. democracy. While the vast majority (76 percent) of U.S. respondents felt as though democracy was important, they identified economic inequality and corruption as its biggest threats. In this way, U.S. citizens echoed former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
The DPI also provides ample lessons for U.S. policymakers regarding the priorities of their constituents. Within the context of the bipartisan debt ceiling agreement, which increased Pentagon spending by 3.3 percent for fiscal year 2024 while cutting up to 750,000 people off of food stamps, the contrast between the policy aspirations of U.S. citizens and the actions of their government is especially apparent. Only 14 percent of U.S respondents wanted the government to support defense as one of its three main priorities, while a plurality believed the government should focus first on ending poverty.
This lends more credence to the controversial study by Princeton from 2014 which concluded that the views of the U.S. public have little to no independent effect on policy. One need only look at voters’ overwhelming support for certain gun reforms – and the absence of any corresponding legislation – to understand the gap between voter preferences and political outcomes.
Though the survey defined democracy as a combination of fair elections, freedom of speech, and equal treatment under the law, it may also underscore the need in western discourse for additional qualifications that include the rights of citizens to exercise sovereignty over their lives. As a diverse group of scholars have long argued – from Robert Dahl to Nancy Fraser– in order for the people (demos) to truly rule (kratia), they must be imbued not only with procedural rights, but also with substantive freedoms. Within the context of continued assaults on reproductive autonomy, and a comparative lack of economic rights which forces Americans into debt for getting sick, this narrative rings especially true. As Latana’s CEO, Nico Jaspers wrote, “the [w]est should not forget that…creating economic opportunities for everyone [is] also key… to promoting democracy.”
From a geopolitical perspective, one of the survey’s most timely implications concerns the war in Ukraine. The DPI found that 50 percent of U.S. citizens supported cutting ties with Russia over its invasion, while 31 percent believed the United States, NATO, and the EU had given Ukraine too little assistance. Those who believed the west had done too much to assist Ukraine (23 percent) and those who opposed cutting economic ties with Russia (23 percent), while up from last year, remained a minority.
The Biden administration has framed the conflict as one of “democracy vs. autocracy.” But a lack of faith among U.S. and EU residents about their countries’ own democratic status may undermine support for a war framed in these terms. Meanwhile, outside of the United States and EU, this framing already carried little weight – see the European Council on Foreign Relations’ recent survey concluding a plurality of Chinese citizens believed the conflict is primarily driven by a desire to “defend Western dominance” rather than defend Ukraine as a democracy.
And indeed, U.S. public support for funding Ukraine has already weakened substantially, with only 48 percent favoring sending arms to Kyiv, down from 61 percent a year ago. As a growing number of House Republicans support cutting off funding from Ukraine entirely, and the Republican frontrunner expresses skepticism for U.S. continued involvement, the distrust in the status of democracy domestically among U.S. citizens and key European allies may necessitate a change in rhetoric if the United States is to justify funding Ukraine down the line.
This disconnect between internal perceptions and geopolitical rhetoric also undercuts efforts such as the Biden administration’s recent Summit for Democracy, which convened 120 of Washington’s allies this March. The event had already come under scrutiny for inviting countries such as Poland, Israel, and India whose authoritarian tendencies have been criticized by international human rights groups, and the DPI’s findings raise additional questions about the moral authorities of western States to make decrees about which countries are or are not democratic.
Overall, the survey underscores the challenges western governments face to instill citizens’ faith in the functionality of their democratic institutions. As Rasmussen noted, “[i]n every country people are calling for more democracy… But leaders of certain democratic societies will also have to address the population’s dissatisfaction with the lack of democracy in their countries.”