Foa and Mounk: The democratic disconnect

A paper in the Journal of Democracy by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk explores trends in the tremendously valuable World Values Survey database.

Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), we look at four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.

What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.


This is interesting enough, by providing a systematic view of what is usually seen through anecdotes. One particular aspect of this trend is even more note-worthy: decline of support for democracy among the wealthy.

Strikingly, such undemocratic sentiments have risen especially quickly among the wealthy. In 1995, the “rich” (defined as deciles 8 to 10 on a ten-point income scale) were the most opposed to undemocratic viewpoints, such as the suggestion that their country would be better off if the “army” ruled. Lower-income respondents (defined as deciles 1 to 5) were most in favor of such a proposition. Since then, relative support for undemocratic institutions has reversed. In almost every region, the rich are now more likely than the poor to express approval for “having the army rule.” In the United States, for example, only 5 percent of upper-income citizens thought that army rule was a “good” or “very good” idea in the mid-1990s. That figure has since risen to 16 percent.

The authors make a very insightful point about this seemingly surprising trend:

While support for military rule among the young and the wealthy may seem like an aberration, their embrace of nondemocratic practices and institutions should not come as a surprise. If we widen the historical lens, we see that, with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.

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3 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    If we widen the historical lens, we see that, with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.

    How do you reconcile this “insightful” explanation with rising inequality (i.e. lack of redistribution) between the rich and the poor? It would be more plausible that the concerns of rich (and successful) people are with the epistemic flaws of electoral governance — contrasting the poor economic record of western liberal democracies with growth trends in non-democratic countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A Sept. 2015 Op-ed in the NYT by the authors has the same themes.

    Like

  3. […] elections featured major party candidates who both had negative net favorability ratings. A study reported that citizens all over the Western world – and in particular, rich citizens – are […]

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