Politics

Global dissatisfaction with democracy has reached a record high, research claims

Pro-democracy protesters at a Thanksgiving Day rally on November 28, 2019 in Hong Kong.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The world is unhappier with democracy than ever, new research has claimed.

In a report published Wednesday, researchers from Cambridge University analyzed the political sentiment of more than 4 million people, using data from survey projects that covered 154 countries between 1995 and 2020.

The proportion of people who said they were dissatisfied with democracy over the last year hit 57.5%, according to the report, with researchers saying 2019 marked "the highest level of democratic discontent" on record.

Authors noted that over the last 25 years, the number of individuals dissatisfied with democratic politics around the world rose from a third to more than half.

Shifts in satisfaction levels were often a response to "objective circumstances and events" such as economic shocks and corruption scandals, the report said.

Following the financial crisis in 2008, for example, global dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy jumped by around 6.5%.

Many large democracies, including the U.S., Australia, U.K. and Brazil, were now at their highest-ever level of dissatisfaction with democracy.

According to the report, the U.S. in particular had seen a "dramatic and unexpected" decline in satisfaction with democracy.

When the surveys began in 1995, more than 75% of U.S. citizens were satisfied with American democracy. The first big knock came with the financial crisis, the report showed, and satisfaction has continued to deteriorate year-on-year ever since.

Fewer than 50% of Americans are now content with democracy in their country, marking the first time on record that a majority of U.S. citizens were dissatisfied with their system of government.

"Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere," the report said. "But for the United States, it marks an 'end of exceptionalism' — a profound shift in America's view of itself, and therefore, of its place in the world."

However, researchers noted that they had found an "island of contentment" in Europe, where satisfaction with democracy had reached all-time highs. Denmark, Switzerland and Norway were among the countries that fell into that category.

Southeast Asia was also described as a regional "bright spot."

Latin American precedent

Speaking to CNBC in a phone call on Monday, Roberto Foa, lead author of the report, said there were a number of different factors behind the declining approval of democracy.

"In developed democracies, it's partly about political polarization — this has been gradual in the U.S. but has spiked in the last couple of years in the U.K.," he said. "Malaise with democracy in the West is often down to longer term economic stagnation and loss of geopolitical influence."

He noted there was a reasonable amount of research suggesting a rise in unhappiness with democracy tended to provoke changes in political behavior. For example, people would become more likely to vote for populist parties or politicians promising to "shake up the system."

"We expect a great deal more of this," Foa told CNBC. "The region that proves this is Latin America — the levels of dissatisfaction have always been very high and we're seeing (a rise in populist support) there."

He added that the rest of history could "look more like the south of the Americas than the north" if global satisfaction levels continued to decline.

Cambridge University's study follows a report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit last week, which found that the U.S. had a "flawed democracy" and the strength of global democracy was at its lowest since 2006.

Meanwhile, research from Edelman last week found that 70% of people around the world believed democracy was "losing its effectiveness as a form of government."