Panelists discuss global public opinion towards democracy amid the rise of populists and autocrats, and the implications for the future of democracy and U.S. foreign policy.
STOKES: First, I’d like to apologize for the fact that I have lost my voice. Too many airplane flights in too short of a period of time. But I’ll try to struggle through here. But when you ask questions, if I don’t hear what you’re saying it’s because my ears are stuffed up. So I apologize.
We are happy to welcome you to this discussion here today about public perspectives towards democracy. The reference point is a new Pew Research Center survey that we just released last week in 38 countries on attitudes towards democracy. And we have here to discuss it Katie Simmons, who’s the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, one of my colleagues. Ken Wollack, who’s the president of the National Democratic Institute. And Stewart Patrick, who is a senior fellow here at CFR in governance and international institutions and global governance.
And we will talk about this among ourselves for about half the problem, before we throw it open to a conversation with all of you. It is a—I would remind that this meeting, unlike many CFR meetings, is on the record. And maybe we could off first, I could ask Katie briefly just to give us some of the highlights of this new survey, which involved about 40,000 people, right, as I recall.
SIMMONS: Yeah. Great. Thank you, Bruce. And thank you all for coming. I’m very happy to be here today to talk about our research, and on this panel.
So our survey, as Bruce mentioned, was of 38 countries around the world. We have between five to 10 countries in each of the major regions. It was conducted between February and May of this year. And we asked a series of questions about different forms of government, and which kind of forms of government people would prefer. And then we also asked people about their satisfaction with their current democracy and how it was working.
And so one of the main findings that we have is generally people are quite positive about representative democracy. So having elected officials make decisions about major laws. And so we get a global median of 78 percent saying this is a good way to govern your country. But at the same time, we get significant pockets of support for some of the non-democratic options that we asked about. So we asked about experts making decisions for the country rather than elected officials. Forty-nine percent this would be a good way. We asked about a strong leader who made decisions without interference from parliament or courts. Twenty-six percent said this would be a good way to govern—including 22 percent in the United States. And then a third option was having the military rule the—rule the country. And here 24 percent said this would be a good way to govern.
Now, we asked each of these independently so people could say both representative democracy and a military government would be a good thing. So to look at sort of the depth of commitment to representative democracy, we created a scale. And essentially what we find is that only about 23 percent around the world, among the 38 countries we surveyed, say that representative democracy is good. And none of those three non-democratic options are good. So those are who we talked about as committed representative democrats. And most people are in this middle category that we created, where they say both representative democracy is good, and these non-democratic options are good. And that’s about 47 percent globally.
So one of the key patterns that we find that really having this commitment scale helps illuminate is two key patterns—countries that are more fully democratic, so they have a more fully functioning democratic system, are more likely to be committed to representative democracy. But really, the only place we get more than half saying they’re committed to representative democracy is in Sweden. Everywhere else, it’s below 50 percent. We also find that countries that have higher income are the ones where you have a higher percentage saying they’re committed to representative democracy. And this theme of democracy working, the economy doing well, really holds throughout the entire report as an important pattern that we see both at the country level and the individual level.
To this point, when we look at the attitudes about whether they’re democracy—whether they’re satisfied with how their democracy is working, we find in 26 of the countries that people who are more satisfied with democracy are more supportive of representative democracy. And satisfaction with democracy is driven by two things. It’s driven by whether you support the governing party and whether you think the economy is doing well. So, again, that pattern that we see of functioning and economy being a big part of attitudes about democracy.
And then finally I’ll just say one of the other aspects that we asked about was direct democracy. And as far as we know, I think this one of the few surveys that has asked about direct democracy. So this is where we ask about whether citizens should vote directly on major issues to decide what becomes law. And we find a high percentage of people around the world—66 percent—say that this would be a good way to govern. And so this is sort of new option that people are considering. The highest percentage was in Europe, 70 percent in Europe said that this would be a good way to go in terms of democracy.
STOKES: In terms of these findings about support for non-democratic governance models, were there other drivers that you found, demographic drivers or whatever? Can you unpack that a little bit?
SIMMONS: Yeah, so we—in addition to some of those sort of attitudinal differences, we find a few key differences. Generally, we did not find age differences on support for the non-democratic options, except for one. So young people are more likely to support experts ruling in some of our advanced economies. In the United States and Australia, Japan, Canada, you find 10 to 20 percentage point differences by age. The most consistent demographic differences we found were based on ideology and education. People on the right of the ideological scale were more likely to support the non-democratic options, especially strong leader and military. And people with lower levels of education, usually secondary or below, were more likely support the non-democratic options, particularly the military option.
STOKES: We’ve seen the rise of right-wing populism, especially in Europe—or, at least, that—there’s certainly a lot of focus of that these days. How does this—what did we learn from this survey about what those people believe or what they think?
SIMMONS: So in Europe, among people who are more supportive of populist parties, they also tend to more supportive of direct democracy options. They’re more likely to say that they want to have a direct democracy. We also saw this earlier in a Europe—report we did about Europe and Brexit, that they were more likely to say they wanted a referendum on the EU. And so there’s definitely this desire for more of a voice. They’re less satisfied, they’re less trusting of the national government than other people. In the United States, there is quite a bit partisan difference on many of these questions. We see a big gap between Republicans and Democrats, particularly on satisfaction with democracy. Republicans are much more satisfied. But then when it comes direct democracy, Democrats are more supportive. And some of the non-democratic options, Republicans are somewhat more supportive.
STOKES: And remind me, I think that the findings in Latin America are also maybe more than interesting in terms of trends there.
SIMMONS: Yeah. So, for a lot of these questions we unfortunately don’t have trends over time, but Latin America is one place that we do have trends on satisfaction with democracy. What we see there is a very shop drop in satisfaction with democracy over the last four years. So we last measured it in 2014, which was apparently a particularly good year for satisfaction for democracy in Latin America. We got very high percentages saying they were satisfied. And then today it’s very low. So for example, in Brazil, 66 percent in 2013 said they were satisfied. Today it’s 28 percent. That’s an extremely large drop in public opinion just over a few years. And again, this is very related to their support for the governing party and also attitudes about the economy.
STOKES: Ken, you and NDI are out in the field all the time working on democracy-related issues, elections. Do these findings reflect what you’re seeing? And are we experiencing a democratic recession, in your mind?
WOLLACK: Well, all the studies, whether it’s Freedom House or The Economist, I think chronicle a sort of democratic recession over the past decade or so. And so it’s hard to refute the great analysis that are done by these and others globally. And certainly there are a number of reasons for this, from authoritarian learning, to the failure of democratic institutions to deliver, to increased political polarization, to ultra-nationalism, populism. But what struck me about the poll—and I had the benefit of hearing this—a lengthier version of this—just this morning by a colleague of Katie who came by NDI to brief our staff—share the results with our staff and board members.
And what struck me is—and we find this on the ground too—that people are schizophrenic a little bit. And the poll results—top line poll results, because the poll didn’t ask people either or questions. It gave them an opportunity to choose all of them. And so I think what you have—correct me if I’m wrong—you have a lot of people—widespread support for representative democracy, fairly widespread support for direct democracy, and a good deal of support for expert—governments run by experts. So I came away this morning with the conclusion that people want representative democracy, but they want to have greater political voice. They want to have more say. They want to have an opportunity to participate directly in the process. And they wish their elected representatives were experts. (Laughter.)
And so in a sense—
STOKES: Novel idea.
WOLLACK: In a sense, I think it reflects what we have found, that people are in a demanding mood. They want food on their table and they want shelter, they want jobs, and they want a political voice. And I think we found that one recent study of 800 protests around the world have shown that they are not motivated by economic considerations. They’re motivated by people who want to have democracy or better democracy. So I think it reflects, I think, a—sort of a demanding citizenry around the world. And I think that’s sort of reflected, in a way, by the poll. They want all of these things. And I think when citizens feel less secure—whether it’s economically or otherwise—and it’s that moment that they retreat to their community, they’re willing to accept other means of government.
I mean, we sometimes forget the popularity of some military coups—whether it’s Chile in ’73, Pakistan in 1999, Cote d’Ivoire in 1999, the Egyptian military coup. These were generally seen as popular coups. The problem is democracy’s a little like oxygen. You take it for granted until you don’t have it. And then suddenly it becomes the most important thing in your life. So each of these countries, the coup—the popularity of that coup waned over years, to the point where people are rising up against military rule.
STOKES: So what does this tell you about what the U.S. government should be doing in terms of its democracy promotion efforts, compared to what would appear to be the willingness to spend money to do that, or whatever. Or we should do it differently, I don’t know.
WOLLACK: It’s a little bit self-interested—(laughter)—but I’ll say that I think it requires a democracy stimulus in terms of our engagement globally on this issue. And I do believe the geopolitical situation does influence this. If you look back at de Klerk in South Africa or the—or the military government in South Korea, I think the position of the United States during that period also influenced the decision by the military in Korea, the decision by de Klerk in South Africa to initiate transitions. And so I think the broader American leadership, resources, and engagement on these issues do have an influence, in addition to the work that’s—
STOKES: And one of our other findings this year was, despite what I think is maybe generally thought to be the case by elites in the United States, that American-style democracy is this model for the world, when we asked people around the world what they thought about American-style democracy there was not nearly the enthusiasm that we might have assumed when we asked the question. So you’re right, I mean, it requires some explanation of—
WOLLACK: I think it depends where.
STOKES: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
WOLLACK: I think in the more democratic countries you would find that reaction. In the places in conflict or non-democratic countries, I think, would be closer, that we aspire to have the problems you do. So I think it depends where.
STOKES: Stewart, the findings showing a fairly low intensity in this commitment to democracy. Does this call into question the assumption that democratic governance is a universal aspiration and inevitable destiny for most people? I mean, should we kind of question whether this is the future?
PATRICK: I think—I think I found the poll to be no more than half-full in terms of—because there is a sort of an on the one hand, on the other hand way of analyzing the results. But I found that particularly the openness to alternative forms of political organization and alternative, more direct forms, of democracy—plebiscitary democracy, if you will, that would probably, I think, make the founders’ skin crawl, particularly since it was a reasonably high support for that in the United States—I think, you know, it does testify to the populist era that we live in, to the fact that we have had a lot of recession. The last 11 years—I see Mike Abramowitz here from Freedom House, which has documented that.
I think that in some ways we can’t—we can’t be sure—well, let me put it this way. There are several things in the poll that I think, like all good polls, probably raises as many questions as it answers. And I think that until we get a little bit more fine-grained in terms of the causality, based on some of the questions that emerge from the poll, it would be hard to have a definitive answer. One of the things, of course, is that this is a one—this is a snapshot poll. And what you want to do is you want to time series this. So I think this would be incredibly valuable to do again in several years, or a couple of years, just to see where the trajectory is, what are the trend lines going on.
I also, when I was reading it, there were a number of conclusions that you came—there were correlations that you talked about that I think could be probed a little bit more. One of them is on the economic front. You made this pretty strong—there’s a pretty strong statement that, well, this—if economic trajectory is pretty good and per capita income is pretty good, then strengths—there’s going to be strong support for democracy. But I would be really interested in doing a class breakdown of that. To some degree you may—you may be a proxy for that with education. And you know, so maybe that was the proxy you were using. But it struck me that doing in-country—within country looking at how it breaks down across classes could be useful.
I also think that looking across countries on the basis of how unequal they are in terms of their economic—it’s not simply whether or not the country’s growing, but—or whether or not the per capita income relatively high on average. What is the Gini coefficient in that country? And I think that could be very useful in terms of another question.
On the governance front, it struck me that—looking at a number of the countries where corruption is very, very high—I wonder how the findings that you have correlate to perceptions of corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Because, you know, we all have examples of—whether it’s Pakistan or, you know, the morally repugnant elite, as they’re called in Haiti, where, you know, you have a huge amount of the country’s wealth in often very poor societies being siphoned off. And the political class is simply associated with being either bandits or those that don’t care about the great mass of the people. I think that would be an important question to ask.
Another thing that I think would be interesting is at least in some of these cases you have countries that are partial democracies, or are transitional democracies that have become disillusioned. And we were talking about this in—before—in the room before coming in here, that there are some countries—and I’d love to get your views on that. As, you know, particularly the former—in former Soviet Bloc countries or former East Bloc, you know, is there, in a sense, a buyer’s remorse? And is that from the older generation? Or is that the newer generation that didn’t have that experience and therefore looks at sort of what could happen domestically?
One other thing that I think I’d be really interested in in the future finding more about is the question of—it’s the levels of analysis, or the political unit that you are dealing with. We also spoke before this event about how there’s a real sense in the world that we want to take back control. We want to take back control from political authorities. That’s part of the narrative in the sovereignty work that I’ve been doing. But there’s also this question—there’s also this sense that, you know, maybe we’re less unhappy with our municipal elected officials, and we’re less unhappy, necessarily, with our governors in our particular state that we’re in. But when it comes to the national level, you get a real problem. And, you know, again, I realize that’s beyond the scope of what we’re talking about, but it may be that the level at which democracy is occurring is really the biggest problem.
WOLLACK: I would just say that goes back 230 years, when Elbridge Gerry advocated for one-year terms for members of Congress. He said, because the representative forgets from whence he—and they were all he’s, of course—from whence he comes, from the city of sin from so far away. And we didn’t even have a capital to be talking about at that point. So that’s always—
STOKES: Well, I mean, you mentioned the findings on direct democracy. And it seems to me that’s one of the most interesting conclusions, because it has the potential for immediate ramifications. I mean, as Katie mentioned, in seven of the nine European countries we surveyed, half or more of the population said we’d like to vote on staying in the EU. Now, all nine of them said we don’t want to leave, but we still want to vote. Macron as promised a potential referendum in France on these reforms that he’s instituting. More immediately, the Japanese have just elected a two-thirds majority in the Diet that now opens the gates to change the constitution in Japan. You need a referendum to change the constitution in Japan. They’ve never had a referendum in Japan in its history. And 65 percent of the Japanese say in principle we like the idea of referenda.
PATRICK: Yeah, this is—I think this is fascinating. And I—you know, in some ways this is the political equivalent of what’s happened in the business world disintermediation, right? So get rid of the middle man, in some ways—middle man, middle woman—who is your elected official who might—you know, you don’t even really have to worry about throwing the bums out if you can simply decide this on your own. So it has a sort of intuitive, very attractive feel. And I wonder how much of it’s related to, frankly, you know, the pervasiveness of social media and high technology, which gives a sense—
STOKES: See, to my mind, it’s the interaction with technology on that issue that’s most interesting, is that if you think about representative democracy and how it emerged in the 18th century and, you know, you’re smarter than I am, you have an education, I don’t. I’m a farmer, you’re a landowner. You go off to London and make decisions. God knows, I don’t know how to answer these questions. Well, now any individual could claim to believe that they could go online and get all the information they’d ever need to make any decision imaginable. And with that technology available to people, how do you ever put that representative—that genie back in the box?
PATRICK: Yeah, and that’s what I find. Actually, it’s a little bit counterintuitive, given if we believe that trend is also going on, to actually have in a populist era a large number of people saying, well, it would be great if we could put the experts in charge, because, of course, when you looked at the Brexit decision—you know, the famous quip by, I think—I don’t know if it was Nigel Farage or one of his fellow travelers, which was, you know, the British people have had, you know, enough of experts. You know, which reminded me of, you know, when Lavoisier went to the guillotine, you know, “La Republique n’a pas besoin de savants,” the Republic has no need for scientists. I mean, there’s a little bit of a—
STOKES: Well, one of the findings—interesting findings I found in the survey was as a Westerner, as an American who spends a lot of time in Europe, I assumed everybody was down on experts and were, you know, kind of negative about experts. And in fact, in Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia, people still revere experts. Now, you know, we could debate whether they mean my experts rather than your experts, but nevertheless, there is a reverence for expertise in other parts of the world that maybe we no longer have.
SIMMONS: And even in Europe the findings weren’t all that low.
STOKES: No, they were not.
SIMMONS: I mean, Europe and North America were lower than other places, but it was still 40, 45 percent who were saying experts—
STOKES: Yeah. Higher than I would have expected. Yeah, yeah.
SIMMONS: Yes, exactly.
STOKES: So you all have a future, by the way. (Laughter.)
WOLLACK: We have to also think about the unintended consequences of direct democracy too. I mean, this was Hugo Chavez once said, famously: I’m not the cause; I’m the result. He was the result of failed political institutions. And he promised a people’s democracy. Ross Perot ran on this, about having machines on television sets, that he could represent people directly. So where this leads is sort of—it’s not only the unknown, but there are sort of dangerous precedents there.
STOKES: Well, given—I mean, making the assumption that these are—that this is a snapshot in 38 countries, we don’t have trends necessarily. But given all of your expertise, I mean, where should we come down on this? I mean, is this concerning but not apocalyptic? Or is it—this is a precursor of things getting worse going forward, do we think? I mean, obviously it’s a judgement we can’t—we all know the data isn’t clear about that. But what is your—each of your feels on that?
WOLLACK: Well, I’m in the optimism business. So I’ll do the glass half-full, in the sense that I think that there is good news in this. And that is we’ve seen these attitudes before. Perhaps they’re more pronounced than they were before. But the attitudes in terms of dissatisfaction with democracy, with political institutions, the need for looking for alternatives. So if political institutions, if political parties are willing to look at findings of polls like this, and are willing to think about ways to think and reform and modernize, become more accountable, more inclusive, then you can respond. You can respond to what these hopes and aspirations are. And so the question is what people do with this information.
And so I tend to think that it’s not too late for institutions to change and be responsive. But it is, in a sense, for these institutions a call for action, that unless they do something and this becomes a crisis of confidence that people have—particularly in countries that don’t have strong political institutions—we have those institutions. We’re big. We can afford to make a lot of mistakes. These places can’t. And so the question is whether institutions are willing and capable of reforming.
STOKES: Stewart, half-full or half-empty?
PATRICK: Yeah, I think, again, I’m a little more—I’m a little bit more skeptical. But partly I’m skeptical because of the current attitude towards democracy promotion in the current administration. And I mean, one of the things, whether or not the United States has been, you know, a crusading, redeemer nation, or has wanted to be a city on a hill and a model, one thing that has been relatively consistent, if not without a lot of exceptions and cell activity over the years, has been a belief that democracy’s the best way for organizing society, and that the United States should be in the business of promoting or, at least, modeling that democratic governance. And you know, if this poll suggests, well, we’re sort of at a tipping point where people around the world are sort of looking at several models.
We haven’t mentioned China, which, you know, as long as it has sort of the unending growth, and yet is able to maintain a one-party state—which has just got reaffirmed this week—you know, we are a long way in this current environment from 2004 or whenever George W. Bush talked about the non-negotiable demands of human dignity. And, you know, maybe all that is lost in the sands of, you know, Iraq and the conflation of democracy promotion with nation-building and a really, really tired American public. Or maybe—you know, it was suggested at another meeting I was at not long ago that maybe the current attitude toward democracy promotion and human rights promotion is really how we are as opposed to how we tend to present ourselves or think of ourselves.
But I—in this I remain an optimist, that I think that there—that the support for democracy in general is a part of—and has been a part of the American political culture and political character for so long that to have this sort of a deviation for too long where—I mean, sorry—where the secretary of state says that, well, we can’t really pursue a policy of values because it’ll conflict with our interests, which I think is a false dichotomy, particularly in this field. But I just think that it’s ultimately probably unsustainable. And I think that—and I think it’s up to Congress in particular, which has become, in a sense, to the degree that there’s a guardian of some of these things, I think, has to—and, you know, they’ve been a guardian in terms of pushing back on different aspects of the federal budget that was submitted by the president.
WOLLACK: I would just add one thing. There has been over the last 30 years, I think, a sea change in terms of the U.S. And it’s differed a little bit from administration to administration. And certainly there are some statements and policies coming out of this administration that have caused some pause. But today every U.S. ambassador in every country has democracy and human rights as part of his or her portfolio. That didn’t exist 30 years ago. And now, it’s not necessarily the number one, or the number two, or the number three issue on the bilateral agenda. But it is now part of that portfolio. There are now institutions that exist today—regional institutions—whether it’s the African Union, the OAS, the OSCE—that don’t have—that have rejected the notion of noninterference and have adopted democratic charters. There is the development community now, even the international financial institutions, that strongly believe that there is a correlation between economic and political development.
So it’s ironic that we’re talking about all of this at a time when the international community is organized itself around these issues, compared to, at least, 30 years ago. And I think that will take a long time to erode. And plus, you do have the Congress that has stepped in and provided largescale resources for this issue, that far outstrip anything that has been appropriated in previous years. So there are—there are signs and hope that there is some foundational institutions and issues that can contribute to this going forward.
STOKES: OK, it’s time, I think, to open this up to questions and comments from folks in the audience. I would like to ask you to remember that this is on the record, wait for the microphone. And then if you could identify yourself and your affiliation. And limit yourself to one question, and please make it a question not a speech. And actually I’d add one other thing. If you can direct it at a particular member of the panel, if possible, that way everyone on the panel won’t feel compelled to answer every question, which means we don’t get many questions.
So here in the middle, right. Yeah, right here.
Q: Hi. John Sullivan. Currently with George Mason. Previously with one of the democracy groups, the Center for International Private Enterprise.
I guess I have to direct this to Ken. But we’ve been talking as if democracy is a unit variable. Democracy is democracy. But implicit in your remarks, and to extent in your remarks, is the idea that some of these democracies don’t function very well. Can you unpack that for us, and tell us what you think, what your experience has been? If you gave people the opportunity to say we need reforms to our democracy so that it works better, I think you used the term, which I used to use, democracy that delivers.
WOLLACK: Yeah, you know, I think that we perhaps 30 years ago had a—thought somehow that democratic development was linear. And I remember Bronislaw Geremek’s admonition that democracy doesn’t necessarily go from triumph to triumph, that politicians and more democratic in opposition than they are in government. Some of our democratic heroes don’t become heroes once they’re in power. And the new democratic governments inherit the legacies of their non-democratic predecessors—poverty, disease, apathy, you know, unresponsive institutions. And what happens in these situations, I think, is you have these new, fragile, nascent democracies that have to build or rebuild political institutions, virtually overnight.
And they’re—and technology has contributed to this disconnect between citizens and their elected government. You know, somebody once said that citizens are now—are communicating using 21st century technology, governments and political institutions are listening using 20th century technology, and responding using 19th century technology. (Laughter.) And the gap between the citizenry and their governments have widened. And this is creating a huge problem. And these institutions are not delivering on what those expectations. And the expectations are much higher today because of technology than they were 30 years ago.
STOKES: And certainly the findings in this survey suggest that support for democracy, just as a principle, is not as high as one might have hoped or—
SIMMONS: Yeah, I mean, I think that we see in some of the regions, the countries that you could consider to be better performing democracies are actually not as supportive. So India has the lowest support for representative democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. South Africa has the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia, the lowest in MENA. Chile, one of the lowest in Latin America. So some of these countries that you think are doing—should be doing pretty well in terms of their democratic performance, you get some of the lower percentages in terms of support for representative democracy.
STOKES: Hattie, right here.
Q: Hattie Babbitt. For the purposes of this meeting, NDI—proud NDI person.
But what I wanted—
STOKES: That means you can’t ask Ken a question.
Q: No, I’m not going to ask Ken a question. I’m going to ask Katie a question. I wanted to understand more about the direct democracy business. And I come from the standpoint of watching California, which is the king of direct democracy in the United States—I mean, the Californians vote on everything. They have pages and pages and pages of things every time there’s an election. And how that experience with direct democracy is reflected in what you learned in your survey of the United States.
SIMMONS: So we don’t have enough cases to look at California directly. And as a Californian, I remember all those very big, long ballots. I do think—so one example is looking within Europe. People in the U.K. have some of the lowest support for direct democracy among the 10 European countries that we surveyed. And so, you know it’s been a year after Brexit, and this may be, you know, one of the reasons that we’re seeing that in the U.K. So it’s something that we haven’t looked at directly by correlating percentage of times you’ve voted on referenda, but I do imagine that if people have had a negative experience with referenda you may see that support go down.
STOKES: And I’ll tell you, a majority of people in the U.K. still support direct democracy. It’s just the smallest in Europe.
SIMMONS: It’s smaller.
STOKES: And the second lowest is in the Netherlands, which is the other country among the 10 that actually has had referenda in the last year.
WOLLACK: But I think a Pew poll earlier in the U.K. showed that a majority of people were against Brexit, but wanted to vote on it.
STOKES: We did not ask that question in the U.K. We asked that in the other nine European countries, and people were—in all nine countries people said: We don’t want to leave. But in seven of the nine, half or more said we want to actually have a vote on it. Which seems to me is about voice. You know, it is—and, you know, ask David Cameron what happens when you give people a voice and they give you a response you didn’t expect to get. Yeah, right here. Right. Yeah, yeah, right—yeah.
Q: Jessica Mathews from the Carnegie Endowment.
I want to understand this poll better, because I am tripping over a question to Russians: Are you satisfied with the way democracy is working in your country. And 59 percent said yes. Well, Russia doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a democracy. So how—I don’t quite understand what the question means and how it’s received—how it’s delivered and how it’s received, because—
SIMMONS: So we asked the question about democracy in countries where there are at least elections and sort of an appearance of democracy, where they might say themselves that they have that. You see that the supporters of the governing party are more likely to be satisfied. And that’s, I think, true in Russia as well. You also see in Russia the lowest commitment to representative democracy among all of the countries. They literally have the lowest percentage saying representative democracy and none of those non-democratic options are good.
So I think—you know, we’ve seen this over time. We get relatively high percentages of Russians happy with their current government system, with how Putin is handling foreign affairs, with how—you know, for a long time, how their economy was doing. So this is a pretty consistent finding with what we’ve seen in the past there.
Q: May I just follow up? I mean, I can see that that’s perfectly legitimate with respect to their satisfaction with their government. But to equate that with democracy seems to me to be a terrible mistake. I mean, they know those are not real elections, believe me. And anyway, elections don’t make a democracy.
STOKES: But, Jessica, put yourself in our shoes, that then we have to judge whether you’re a democracy before we ask you whether you like your democracy when, in fact, you claim to be a democracy. And I think one of the dangers in public opinion polling is projecting yourself onto others. I mean, look, on a—on a real-life basis, I wouldn’t—I personally wouldn’t disagree with you. But I think, you know, we have to figure out a way to do this in as neutral a way as possible.
Q: So does that mean, Bruce, then you just take elections as that creates a democracy?
STOKES: Yeah, you have to have some kind of criteria, basically. You know, I mean, you could say we had the wrong criteria. That’s an acceptable—yeah, yeah.
Q: Well, on the same point as well—oh, thank you. I’m Nancy Lubin. I had a research and consulting company, JNA Associates, Inc., and have been going out to the former Soviet Union since the early ’70s, focusing on Central Asia for 25 years. And I say that because I wanted follow up on what Jessica’s saying. Not only when it comes to your survey, using the assumption of your question that you have a democracy, tell us how it’s working.
But also going to your point about building democratic institutions. We’ve spent, you know, million—I mean, the world community—building institutions in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union that we have called democratic institutions, but have absolutely nothing to do with democracy in practice, have been so co-opted and are so, you know, corrupt, that in fact so many people feel it’s only deepened these authoritarian regimes, and made them far stronger than they ever were before. So that I wonder, by calling all these thing democracy, are we really making it tougher for people to actually make some kind of deeper and more lasting change in their countries, when the whole rest of the world is calling what they already have democracy?
PATRICK: There’s also, I mean, I would say, a potential commensurability question, too, which is, to the degree that one is trying to analyze trends within democracies, if one’s lumping partial democracies or nondemocracies in with that group, it could conceivably limit the—or at least one—it would be good—that’s why I was getting at questions that differentiate, again, about how countries are ranked as either free or partly free, to use Freedom House, or non-free, versus, you know, partial democracies. There’s anocracy, I think, is another thing. So, I mean, I have some sympathy with, me personally—
Q: (Off mic.)
Let me first say, like most of my colleagues, I live off your polls. So I think, without them, most of us would be out of business. So thank you for that.
So when I look at them, if you look, one of the options I think you did not include is people prefer theocracy. So I think your own polls show that in many of the Muslim countries, people say they prefer democracy, but they want more religion in their public life. Which means, to me, that they want a law of God above the law of men. So here we get at this tension. So that’s one thing I wonder if, in the future, maybe you can pay more attention to this tension.
Second, and last, none of us wants democracy. We want a liberal democracy and constitutional democracy. So when you—that’s what a—election is, you know, is a Freedom House criteria, but none of us take it seriously. And so we don’t want an electoral democracy if it did not allow freedom of speech, it did not allow—the whole idea is not rule of majority, it’s a majority contextuated by the constitution. So when you—the reason it’s relevant to the surveys, if you ask the same people who are, say, pro-democracy are you for free speech, they say not on your life, and so on and so on. So I think, whatever words you use, liberal democracy, constitutional democracy. Without that, I think inadvertently these findings are too optimistic, I think, for most of us.
WOLLACK: The question I would—I would—the issue I would take on, though, a little bit is about the elections. You’re right, elections don’t equal democracy. But I would say you have to have elections as a precursor to all these. I don’t know how you build liberal institutions with governments that don’t have legitimacy. And—
Q: Of course. I wanted to ask the question about elections and it’s a constitution.
Q: But as you—just on a technical point, I spent 20 years at Columbia University doing polls. Obviously, you ask first what people mean by the term, right? And the head of the Tunisian party was here, and he said he’s all for democracy. When we asked him what he meant, he said full employment. (Laughter.) And so thanks for listening.
STOKES: I mean, certainly—go ahead, Katie. Yeah.
SIMMONS: Yeah, I’ll just jump in on a couple things.
On theocracy, we have asked about sort of the components of democracy over time, and how important are different components. And one of them we’ve asked about is the role of religious leaders or religion in making laws or deciding things, and we do find some of the highest support in the MENA region for having religion as part of a democracy or as part of their governance. So that’s definitely a—
Q: (Off mic.)
SIMMONS: Well, in terms of how they—they think that’s important for their country, to have religion as part of their government.
On the civil liberties aspect or on free speech, we did a broad survey on that in 2015. And I think one of the interesting findings there is that even though in this survey Latin America is the lowest in terms of support for representative democracy, in our 2015 findings they were among the highest in terms of support for free speech, and the types of things that you should be able to say, and not having the government limit what you can say or what the press can say. So it’s much—we asked very basic about representative democracy in this survey in part because we wanted to compare it to other forms of government, but there are much more nuances in terms of what are the components that are important to you and how do you support the different components of it, whether you support the term or not.
WOLLACK: Is it fair to ask a—is it fair to say—to differentiate between democratic processes and democratic values? I mean, we’re still debating democratic values in this country. And if you poll in the Middle East, for example, on freedom of association, freedom of speech, independent judiciary, elections, all the—sort of the democratic forms and the ability to assemble and free speech, separation, parliaments, all these issues, generally overwhelming majorities would agree—78 (percent), even—78, 80 percent. Then, when you get into the values issues on a variety of issues—which I think would be true in the United States, perhaps more pronounced in the Middle East—but there you get differentiations. And—
STOKES: It’s interesting you make that distinction. I wouldn’t call—I would call the things that people support values and the processes, I mean, the ones that we’re trying to wrestle with next year, how do we—I mean, do you believe that if your party wins a majority, you still have to respect the minority’s rights? Or does that give you license to do whatever you want to do, because we got a majority of the vote? I mean, it seems to me those are the interesting—and it’s not—
WOLLACK: I was talking about things—
WOLLACK: Reproductive rights, same-sex marriage.
STOKES: Oh, I see. OK, yeah, yeah.
WOLLACK: All the—all what we would consider to be some liberal democratic values.
STOKES: Liberal democratic values. Yeah, I see what you mean. Yeah.
WOLLACK: Those you get debates and—
STOKES: Right. And what do you do if a liberal democracy produces illiberal results? I mean, then it brings into conflict two of our things we say we believe in.
Back here in the back, yeah. Yeah.
Q: This is—I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School, but my life went from being the first person at the Peace Corps to being the first female political appointee at the Navy.
I always thought democracy was about having the citizens cast a vote. And what I’m struck by is the importance of two key institutions—one is the media, and the other is academia—to write in a way that the citizens can understand what’s going on, what are the issues. With enough background, they can make a wise choice. And I will say I think academia is really screwing us because they’re not required—they can write long treatises, but they don’t—they’re not required to write something that 11-year-olds can understand. And the media has gotten—I don’t know what’s happened to them, but they certainly aren’t covering the broad spectrum of stuff—well. And then you have what the information technology has done. And I will tell you, having been a part of that team at the Defense Department, we never had any idea that this is how it would evolve. And with all these things, the question is: What’s the social consequence? So my question for you is, how do we get both the media and academia doing a better job telling the stories so we understand the issues?
STOKES: Katie, this is a segue into something you might want to tell people we’re about to do.
SIMMONS: That’s true.
So at least we’ve done quite a bit of research within the United States about how the media is doing, and one of the interesting findings that our journalism team has come up with is that for the first time, really, we’re getting a very large partisan divide both on the essentialness of the media to democracy—now all of a sudden Republicans are much less likely to say that than they were before—and also attitudes about how the media is doing, whether they’re performing well. There’s a very big divide between Republicans and Democrats in that respect in the United States. So I think concerns there as well.
And then something that we’re interested in looking into. A future project that we have is about whether we see this sort of level of polarization in Europe, and how attitudes about the media and how they are performing divide along political lines in Europe. So it’s something that we’re interested in investigating and haven’t done as much on yet, but will be soon.
STOKES: I mean, what I find interesting is, in almost every presentation I do almost anywhere in the world, there’s a question about the role of the media in modern kind of politics and policymaking. And I don’t know that the media would have been in the consciousness of people 10 years ago in the same way. They would have taken the media for granted. So I think that’s a—and I can’t prove that, but just my experience is that. And that’s fascinating that it’s not just in the U.S.
Yeah, here. Yeah.
Q: A good segue—(comes on mic)—David Ensor. I’m at George Washington University, running the Project on Media and National Security, so following right on from where you were.
And a question for Stewart. I mean, I’m trying to decide whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist on this democracy question too. And I’m—by nature I’m normally an optimist. I want to be an optimist. But you mentioned, Stewart, about the role of social media, and of the types of—the kind of digital media that we now have. And it seems to me that when we first started to get these things, Google and Facebook and others and many others who helped invent them said, isn’t this going to be wonderful? We’re all going to be interconnected. We’re going to be able to—we’re going to be empowered. We’re going to be able to do so much more. Democracy will be much more efficient and effective. And, in fact, what has happened so far is it has divided us. It has divided us into camps, into groups—Facebook groups who think one thing as opposed to another thing.
I used to be a network television correspondent. We used to have 66 million people watching one of the three major shows each night. Now it’s about 18 million watching those three shows, and that’s in a nation of 340 (million), not 200 million. So we’re not having a common conversation in this country, and increasingly other countries as well.
And this all inclines me, perhaps, to become a pretty deep pessimist. Why should I not be? Or are we, in fact, in a very bad situation—
PATRICK: Maybe it just reflects a couple of op-eds that I—or one op-ed by Tom Edsall that I read today about the Trump phenomenon, but it was really more about the hyper-polarization of the state in which we’re living; and then another sort of profile of Laura Ingraham and her new job on Fox News, again talking about—you know, referencing the notion that the—that the coastal elites are in—they are the two parentheses that are sort of on either side of America was basically the way it was put.
And I agree. I think that, you know—I think that information technology, social media in particular, poses a tremendous challenge for the future of liberal democracy, not necessarily—not necessarily populist democracy—in part because of what you said. I think that the—and one I’ve referenced earlier is the intermediaries are gone. There is a sense of—the democratization of information and then also of platforms means that anybody can, in a sense, now become an expert. Anybody can participate. And yet, there is—there is also, as we’ve seen, just a—is it possible to have a liberal form of democracy when there’s no agreement on the existence of objective truth, much less any place to have a platform where political discourse can happen in a civil way and where compromise can actually be reached? And I find—I mean, this is all—these are things you all are familiar with from your own experience, I’m sure, with social media, the degree at which, you know, it’s like the—it’s narrowcasting carried to the Nth degree in terms of us not actually inhabiting the same sort of political community. And if we don’t have a single polity, then how could we possibly have sort of a single democracy going forward?
I also think that open societies, liberal societies are, you know—what we’ve found is that, you know, you—that the openness, ironically, is an enemy of liberalism if it allows infiltration by, you know, other—foreign governments, and not least in our last election, that can create entire fabulist narratives that can conceivably sway an election or at least make people deeply skeptical of the democracy in which we live in. So, for these reasons, you know—I know that there’s a lot of great things, and you know, Peter Ackerman’s not here anymore, and I know he’s done a lot of work on civil society movements and civil disobedience and authoritarian governments, and how social media can help empower that, but the tyrants have gotten pretty good with controlling what they’re doing. And we have some constitutional constraints, as we probably should, in terms of what we do with our own media and protecting ourselves.
STOKES: Ken? Yeah.
WOLLACK: I think we all had a cyber utopian view originally over this issue, that somehow greater internet access would contribute to more open societies. Wael Ghonim, who was the democratic activist and whose Facebook posts in Egypt helped trigger the revolution, said that social media was seen as a liberating means to speak truth to power. And the issue, he said, now is who’s going to speak truth to social media.
And not only do you—are you not agreeing on what facts are, you also have the problem of what’s called this Overton window, where there used to be parameters regarding political discourse beyond which somebody was discredited. And now the Overton window has been shattered. There is no parameters within which you have to have political discourse.
And so the question is, how do you respond? And it comes down to constitutional issues. The tech companies don’t view themselves as media. They view themselves as platforms. And the question is, do they deal with the democracy issue, and how do you view yourself as a media company and not necessarily a platform company. That’s one.
And, second of all, how do you empower people globally to detect, expose, and counter disinformation that exists? There are—we’re just waking up to this right now. I mean, there are groups in Ukraine and elsewhere who have been dealing with this for the past decade. But this is a huge challenge, and I think—and the whole disinformation campaign is designed solely to undermine democratic discourse and confidence in political institutions. The difference is, in the days of the Soviet Union, when their propaganda campaign was our tractor is better than your tractor, nobody believed it. Now the disinformation campaign, which is designed to pollute and divide, it reinforces what people think, perhaps, of their own institutions. So it has resonance. And they’re doing it in a very, very clever way. And somebody said it’s like providing candy, and the response is kale.
And so it’s—(laughter)—it’s spending, I think, a lot more time, and it requires government, civil society, political institutions, and the tech companies themselves to come up with a response to what I think is a global threat, not only being exported by Russia but a third of the news on President Duterte is generated by bots, and true of Hun Sen in Cambodia. So this is being used internally, and now it’s being used to export to countries to undermine democratic discourse and institutions.
STOKES: And as someone mentioned to me over the weekend, we have yet to at least think we see the Chinese attempt to do what the Russians, we think, have done. And the Chinese may be better at this and have a—have a better story to sell in the process.
We have time for, I think, one more question here. Right here. Yeah, yeah.
Q: Hi. Anne Peacock with the State Department.
My question is, if there is overwhelming support for representative democracy, you know, in their country, having—the individual having a representative democracy, is there support for our foreign policy or the foreign policy of that—of that country to be promoting representative democracy and spending assistance, taxpayer dollars, on promoting it externally?
SIMMONS: So I don’t think we’ve ever asked directly about promoting democracy overseas, but we have asked questions about foreign—assisting foreign countries in Europe—I think that’s right—and there was generally support for that.
SIMMONS: Am I right?
STOKES: Yeah, as I recall.
SIMMONS: And there was—you know, so that—we did a big study in 2016 in Europe about their desire for engagement with the world, and we really expected people to be turning severely inward. And you did see some evidence of that, that they wanted to focus more on domestic issues rather than international issues, that they were less interested in compromising with allies. But then it wasn’t completely turning inward. And there were definitely countries such as Germany, and even Spain despite some of the economic challenges that they’ve had, wanting to engage with the rest of the world, and wanting to provide assistance to foreign countries, and to be part of the global economy. And, you know, also support for the EU has gone back up since Brexit. So we don’t see this turning against sort of the rest of the world, necessarily.
STOKES: Actually, I was wrong. We probably have one more question if—OK.
Q: Well, thank you. I’m Nancy Lubin again.
But I was just curious, you know, because was we’re talking here, this whole notion of democracy is such an abstraction, and it means something so different in every little corner of the world. So, when you asked these questions, did you ask, really, two—one, what kind of—what kind of government they feel they already have? Do those 59 percent in Russia actually believe they have what’s called a democracy? And, second, did you correlate it at all with behavior? Have you ever turned to one of your leaders for anything? What was the—you know, have you ever—do you support a media that can say whatever they want? I mean, do you support other people having a voice? Did you correlate it with behavior that might give you an idea if we’re all talking about the same thing?
SIMMONS: Yeah. So, ideally, we would have done focus groups, and gotten a chance to sit down and talk with people about what does the term “democracy” mean to you. Unfortunately, given the timeline, in a number of countries we weren’t able to do that.
We have asked, I think as I mentioned earlier, components of democracy before, and we have also asked that compared with how well is our country doing on that. So, you know, you say you want a two-party system with—at least two parties, with elections. Do you think our country is doing pretty well on that? And you always see a gap between this is very important and our country’s doing very well on that. So people are sort of disappointed even with the components of democracy, and maybe less likely to say that their country is performing on all of these components of democracy.
In terms of behavior, we have done some investigation into political engagement and civic engagement, usually in some of our more economic developing and emerging economies, and we see relatively low levels of, you know, sending a letter to a politician, but in some of our countries higher engagement with political parties or attending a rally in a way that you don’t necessarily see in the United States.
We haven’t looked at how that correlates yet with percent saying representative democracy is a good one. The main one that we have looked at is this freedom of expression attitudes that we did in 2015, and it’s not really correlated, right? So Latin America is really low on representative democracy, really high on free speech. And so that’s sort of a part of that that we’re still kind of puzzling through, about what does it mean to really support free speech but not representative democracy, or vice versa.
STOKES: So thank you. I’d like to thank our panel. I’d like to thank all of you, and thank the CFR. (Applause.) And we hope to talk to you again. Thanks.