Dalia Research, the Alliance for Democracies and Rasmussen International have released the results of the Democracy Perception Index, the largest study of its kind, based on interviews with 124,000 people in 53 countries around the world. It contains some interesting results – some heartening, others less so. This map in particular has jumped out at me, since I’ve always been interested in global perceptions of the United States (myself having a generally positive one since I was a child, which I guess is what happens when you grow up under communism):
If you did not know anything about international politics, you could easily make the following two observations: firstly, that China is America’s biggest enemy at the moment, judging by the most negative perception in the world. Secondly, you would assume that in addition to Russia, America’s enemies around the world include primarily all of the Western Europe, Canada and Australia. It is ironic, of course, since with the exception of Russia, all these countries are supposed to be friends and allies.
Seeing how the opinion-shaping in the West is overwhelmingly in the hands of the anti-American left, I don’t find this result surprising. Saddening yes, but not surprising.
What is far more interesting is the perception across the developing world. This, remember, are the countries where for most part democracy is either relatively new and/or quite fragile. In some cases it is merely an aspiration by people yearning to be free. Nowhere is it as entrenched or as liberal as throughout the developed Western world. Yet in most of the (surveyed) countries of Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, strong majorities or at least strong pluralities think that the United States has a positive impact on democracy worldwide (presumably including their own countries). All the trendies across the Western Europe, Canada and Australia might sneer and bemoan the Great Satan and its evil influence around the world, but elsewhere, where it actually matters, where people don’t take their freedoms for granted and where they desire more (incidentally including in Iran itself), the United States is still seen as the leader of the Free World and the beacon of democracy.
Another good news-bad news graph relates to the importance of democracy:
In every country, a majority considers democracy to be important, in most countries overwhelmingly so. In great many, however, people think the reality does not live up to their expectations. In some, the gap is quite distressingly large, including – not surprisingly – Venezuela, but also Poland and Hungary, where the (conservative) governments have been democratically elected but often behave in a rather illiberal fashion towards anyone not wholly on side.
An interesting aside is the troika of countries, which clearly are not democratic (or free) by any reasonable criteria – China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia – but where nevertheless strong majorities feel they live in a democracy. One always has to be cautious with any public opinion research conducted in authoritarian countries, where people know the consequences of not toeing the official line. Another possible explanation is that at least some portions of the respective populace consider their countries to be democratic in a sense that they think their governments reflect the will of the people and have their best interests at heart, even if this is not achieved through elections or any other traditional democratic mechanism.
We should also always consider the specific political conditions in a particular country when looking at the survey numbers. For example, less than half of Americans think their country is democratic. Clearly, America is a democracy (OK, for the sticklers it is actually a republic, but it is one with perhaps more elected public positions than anywhere else in the world), though it’s easy to see how so many people can think it’s not, when perhaps a majority of the Democrats fantasise that Donald Trump is some sort of a fascist dictator and even the saner part of the base would argue that “anti-democratic” institutions like the Electoral College have skewed election results, preventing the will of the majority from being heard. Perception is not always reality.
Encouragingly, people around the world are still yearning to be free and there seems to be very little appetite for alternatives to democracy of any sort:
Again, interestingly, China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia seem by and large satisfied with the amount of democracy they imagine they have in their countries – or at least don’t feel like sharing their true fillings with Western public opinion researchers, which is quite understandable.
As Winston Churchill had famously said, democracy is the worst system of government devised by men except for all the others. The gap between the theory and the practice and the promise will always exists in an imperfect world, and so our striving to narrow that gap never ends.