Democracy, autocracy, whatever? Citizens’ views of the political regime they live in

Faced with far-reaching restrictions on civil liberties to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, political observers have pointed out the value of democratic rights and how democratic principles must be upheld even (or especially) in times of crisis. While there is broad consensus on the value of democracy, in the real world, autocratic forms of rule are prospering. Not only have autocratic rulers in countries like Russia or China managed to consolidate their power; autocracies are also once again competing with Western liberal democracies for economic as well as military supremacy. While political science has grappled with the democracy vs. autocracy conundrum for years, we still know little about how citizens, arguably the most important arbiters in this game, view the “battle of regimes.” How do democracies and autocracies fare in the eyes of their citizens? Do they actually care whether they live in a democracy, or can they be just as content living under autocratic rule – and why could that be the case?

Angesichts weitreichender Einschränkungen der bürgerlichen Freiheiten zur Bekämpfung der anhaltenden COVID-19-Pandemie haben politische Beobachter*innen auf den Wert demokratischer Rechte hingewiesen. Sie fordern, dass die demokratischen Grundsätze auch (oder vor allem) in Krisenzeiten gewahrt werden müssen. Obwohl es einen breiten Konsens über den Wert der Demokratie gibt, gedeihen in der realen Welt autokratische Formen der Herrschaft. Nicht nur, dass es autokratischen Herrschern in Ländern wie Russland oder China gelungen ist, ihre Macht zu festigen; Autokratien konkurrieren auch wieder mit westlichen liberalen Demokratien um wirtschaftliche und militärische Vorherrschaft. Während sich die Politikwissenschaft seit Jahren mit dem Problem Demokratie vs. Autokratie auseinandersetzt, wissen wir immer noch wenig darüber, wie die Bürger*innen, die wohl wichtigsten Schiedsrichter in diesem Spiel, den “Kampf der Regime” sehen. Wie schneiden Demokratien und Autokratien in den Augen ihrer Bürger*innen ab? Ist es Menschen wichtig, in einer Demokratie zu leben, oder sind sie unter autokratischer Herrschaft genauso zufrieden – und warum?

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.14

From a normative point of view, the verdict is clear: as a form of government, democracy ought to be preferred to any non-democratic alternative. Among other things, democracies grant every citizen the same basic political rights and an equal say in the making of binding decisions (Dahl 1989). In addition, democracies are undoubtedly superior in providing goods like civil liberties, government efficiency, transparency, corruption control, and peace (Halperin, Siegle, and Weinstein 2005; Kolstad and Wiig 2016; Møller and Skaaning 2013; Stockemer 2012). Notwithstanding, if we take a global perspective, autocratic forms of rule abound and most autocracies around the world seem to be alive and well. What’s more, in recent years, quite a few democracies have started turning down the authoritarian road (again) – just think of Hungary, the Philippines, or Turkey; a movement only amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet apart from a few exceptions, citizens in autocratic and autocratizing countries are barely fighting these developments and, in many cases, actually seem pretty content with the situation overall. Why would that be the case?

Citizens support autocratic regimes just as much as democratic ones

Looking at survey data from more than 100 democracies and autocracies across the globe, we can assert what may be a surprising result: citizens in autocracies appear no more or less satisfied with the political regime in which they live than citizens in democracies. This holds true even if we factor in the potential for preference falsification, i.e. the possibility that people living in non-democratic contexts might not be willing to express their true opinions in public opinion surveys. In fact, the variation within each group – democracies and autocracies – is far greater than the variation between the two types of regimes, demonstrating that there must be much more than the sheer question of democracy or autocracy that decides how citizens view their political regime. Importantly, we cannot find any evidence for a general superiority of one type of regime over the other.

Figure 1: Levels of regime support in democracies and autocracies
Notes: Means of latent variable regime support for each country. In political systems where more than one year was available, average of all country-years is used. Weighted data.
Sources: Afrobarometer 2011-2013, AmericasBarometer 2012, Arab Barometer 2012-2014, Asian Barometer 2010-2012, Latinobarómetro 2013, World Values Survey 2010-2014.

Yet people everywhere want and value democracy

So, does this indicate that people simply don’t want democracy? That doesn’t seem to be the case: An abundance of research demonstrates that support for democracy as a system of government is high pretty much everywhere and just as strong in autocracies as it is in democracies (Haerpfer and Kizilova 2014; Klingemann 2014; Letsa and Wilfahrt 2018; Robbins 2015.

Maybe, then, people in living in autocracies just don’t prioritize having a democratic form of government but rather value other things like social protection or economic growth? Again, data from more than 100 democracies and autocracies worldwide does not indicate that this is the case at all. There is little to no difference in what people consider important for judging the political regime in which they live. In fact, the single most important predictor of regime support, both in democracies and autocracies, is citizens’ evaluation of the regime’s democraticness!

Figure 2: Sources of regime support in democracies and autocracies
Notes: Results of multi-level regression analysis for dependent variable regime support. Unstandardized regression coefficients and 95% confidence intervals. Robust standard errors.
Sources: Afrobarometer 2011-2013, AmericasBarometer 2012, Arab Barometer 2012-2014, Asian Barometer 2010-2012, Latinobarómetro 2013, World Values Survey 2010-2014.

But there’s quite some confusion about which regimes are democratic

Where democracies and autocracies differ, however, is in how accurately citizens’ perceptions of the regime’s democraticness reflect the actual level of democracy in their country. While citizens living in democracies tend to have a pretty good grasp of how democratic their political regime actually is, this is not the case in autocracies: here, citizens routinely over-estimate the amount of democracy their regime provides (Kruse, Ravlik, and Welzel 2017; Mauk 2017; Shi and Lu 2010). The reason for this is simple. Having realized the legitimizing power of democracy, modern-day autocracies have become experts at convincing their people that they, too, are democratic. One way they achieve this through indoctrination, i.e. by teaching their citizens that democracy means whatever fits their own autocratic political system. For example, schools in the Vietnamese single-party state instruct children that the core value of democracy is harmony, and therefore having only a single party is much better for democracy than having multiple parties competing for power (Doan 2005). Another popular way to skew citizens’ perceptions of the regime’s democraticness is through propaganda, i.e. simply lying about how the political process works. For example, a lot of autocracies like to pretend they’re democratic by holding seemingly competitive, but ultimately flawed elections which do not give the opposition a proper chance of ever winning, and then banning any reports on election fraud (Schedler 2010).

So, in the eyes of citizens, it surely isn’t “democracy, autocracy, whatever!” People around the world cherish the idea of democracy and consider it important for how they view their own political regime. Yet, due to autocratic indoctrination and propaganda, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation as to what “democracy” means and what realities in each country actually look like.

For more on how citizens’ view the political regime they live in: Mauk, Marlene (2020): Citizen Support for Democratic and Autocratic Regimes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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