Is democracy in danger?

Rising distrust of politicians and parliaments, declining voter turnouts – these are now common trends in many established democracies. But is support for democracy itself ebbing away?

Disconnect and discontent

It is believed that wealthy Western democracies that are now established over at least two generations, and with an active civil society, are stable. But things could be about to change.

Political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk analysed data from the World Values Survey (which has drawn in nearly 100 countries since it began in 1981) to demonstrate a plunge, by age group, in the percentages of people who find it ‘essential’ to live in a democracy. Older people, born around World War Two, showed the strongest support for democracy.

The young find it less ‘essential’ to live in a democracy1,2

The shockingly low figures for the youngest group can be interpreted a bit differently by looking at the raw data of the World Values Survey. When selecting their group of people who found democracy ‘essential’, Foa and Mounk picked only those who chose the highest score (10) from a scale of 1 to 10 when rating the importance of democracy.

So, for New Zealand/Aotearoa this is a mere 27%. But those who gave a score of 6 and above were a healthier 75%.3

Nonetheless, the percentage of people of all ages who actively consider democracy to be a bad idea has increased over the last decade.

A democratic system is a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to run the country1

Iron fist2

Proportion of US citizens expressing approval for ‘army rule’

Two-fifths of the respondents in a 2015 French survey felt the country should be run by an ‘authoritarian government’ free from democratic constraints.

Hardening attitudes4

A 2016 YouGov survey of 12 European countries revealed strikingly high numbers of people supporting authoritarian populist views: 1) anti-immigration, 2) anti-human rights, 3) anti-EU institutions and integration policies, and 4) strong on foreign-policy issues.

Surveys are not facts, but they do reflect public opinion. The trends they reflect offer explanations why authoritarian leaders are being elected and strong-arm politics is not being condemned.

  1. Foa and Mounk, ‘The danger of deconsolidation: the democratic disconnect’, Journal of Democracy, July 2016,
  2. Foa and Mounk, ‘The signs of deconsolidation’, Journal of Democracy, January 2017 (pre-publication),
  3. WVS Database
  4. Alberto Nardelli, ‘Revealed: Nearly half the adults in Britain and Europe hold extremist views’, BuzzFeed News, 7 October 2016,