This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
The health of democracy has declined substantially in nations around the world in recent years. Numerous studies by organisations such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance have documented the deterioration of democratic norms, the erosion of individual rights and the weakening of democratic institutions. At Pew Research Center, we’ve explored liberal democracy’s crisis of confidence by studying how citizens across the globe think about democracy and its alternatives. The crisis has many characteristics, but there are four that regularly appear in our cross-national surveys: a surprisingly weak commitment to democratic values among many citizens; a sense of frustration with the performance of democratic societies; political and social divisions that exacerbate the problems of contemporary democracy; and a widespread desire for a more prominent public voice in politics and policymaking.
How committed are people to democracy?
[A] willingness to consider non-democratic forms of government reveals the weak commitment some have to democracy.
Overall, democracy is a popular idea, and when we ask people about it in our surveys they usually say it is a good way to govern their country. However, our surveys also reveal that even people who say they like democracy are not always strongly committed to it. A survey we conducted in 2017 highlights this pattern. A median of 78% across the 38 nations polled said that “a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law” is a very or somewhat good way to govern their country.
In addition to representative democracy, the survey found considerable support for direct democracy, defined as “a democratic system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law”.
However, the same survey found substantial support for non-democratic approaches to governing, such as rule by experts or a system in which “a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”. Even military rule had its supporters: a median of 24% said “a system in which the military rules the country” would be a very or somewhat good system.
Support for representative and direct democracy was widespread in 2017 survey, but many were also open to nondemocratic alternatives
% who say __ would be a good or bad way of governing our country
Note: Percentages are global medians based on 38 countries. Full question wordings for political systems: Representative democracy, “A democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law”; Direct democracy, “A democratic system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues to decide what becomes law”; Rule by experts, “Experts, not elected officials, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country”; Rule by a strong leader, “A system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”; Rule by the military, “The military rules the country.”
Source: Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey. Q29a-e. PEW RESEARCH CENTER
This willingness to consider non-democratic forms of government reveals the weak commitment some have to democracy. And this lack of commitment is one reason some would-be autocrats and political entrepreneurs have been able to bend the rules and norms of liberal democracy in recent years with relatively few consequences.
Many say democracy is not delivering
This openness to authoritarianism is being driven in part by frustration with the functioning of democracy. Pew Research Center surveys have consistently found large shares of the public in many countries saying they are dissatisfied with the way their democracy is working. And for many, this dissatisfaction is leading to a desire for political change. A median of 56% across 17 advanced economies surveyed in 2021 said their political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed.
Discontent and disillusionment with the political status quo is tied to many factors, including economic frustrations, perceptions of corruption, and criticisms about the overall fairness of the political and economic system.
Even where the demand for significant political reform is relatively low, substantial minorities want at least minor changes. In all of the publics surveyed, fewer than three-in-ten say the political system should not be changed at all.
However, there is widespread skepticism about the prospect for change. In 8 of the 17 publics surveyed, roughly half or more of those polled said the political system needs major changes or a complete overhaul, and that they have little or no confidence the system can be changed effectively.
This discontent and disillusionment with the political status quo is tied to many factors, including economic frustrations, perceptions of corruption, and criticisms about the overall fairness of the political and economic system. Over time, our research has shown that when people think their countries are performing poorly on these dimensions, confidence in democracy often slips.
Political and social divisions are amplifying the challenges
In many nations, sharp political and social cleavages are adding to the strains on democracy. For example, in our surveys many describe racial, ethnic and partisan divisions as major problems for their countries, and citizens who worry about these fault lines are often less satisfied with the way democracy is working and more likely to want significant reforms to their political systems.
The global pandemic has, if anything, intensified political and social divisions. Across 19 nations surveyed in 2022, a median of 61% said their country is more divided than before the COVID-19 pandemic. We also have found that people who think their country is more divided are particularly likely to be dissatisfied with the state of democracy and to want political reform.
A Path Towards Post-Pandemic Progress: Our democracies, resilience and public trust by Elsa Pilichowski, Director for Public Governance, OECD
Most want a stronger voice in politics
Despite the many criticisms people have about the way democracy is working and the many divisions that are afflicting democratic societies, our research indicates that people have not given up on democracy—in fact, instead of turning away from it, many want more democracy and a stronger voice in political life.
Ordinary citizens want to be heard in the ongoing debates about the health of democracy.
For example, there is considerable interest in reforms and democratic innovations that could provide citizens with a more active voice in decision-making. As noted above, the idea of direct democracy—where citizens vote directly on what does or does not become law—is popular around the globe. And a 2020 survey of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States found that citizen assemblies or forums—where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done—were overwhelmingly popular. As a 2020 OECD report highlights, these efforts at deliberative democracy have become increasingly common in nations around the world in recent years.
Regardless of what one thinks about direct or deliberative democracy, the fact that so many people are interested in these ideas speaks to the widespread desire for more active engagement in the political system. Our research suggests that ordinary citizens want to be heard in the ongoing debates about the health of democracy, and they believe a healthy democratic system will include a stronger role for them in making decisions about the important issues that shape their lives.