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Popular Understanding of Democracy

Summary and Keywords

How well do people around the world understand democracy? Do they support democracy with an informed understanding of what it is? To address these questions, which have largely been overlooked in the literature on democratization, the World Values Survey and three regional barometer surveys are analyzed according to a two-dimensional notion of democratic knowledge. Their analyses reveal that a vast majority of global citizenries especially in post-authoritarian and authoritarian countries are either uninformed or misinformed about the fundamental characteristics of democracy and its alternatives. These findings contradict the popular theses that democracy is emerging as a universal value and it is also becoming the universally preferred system of government. For much of the world today, democracy represents little more than an appealing political symbol that still retains authoritarian practices.

Keywords: authentic democrats, conceptions of democracy, informed understanding of democracy, superficial democrats, theses of global democratization, universal value


The third wave of democratization, which began in southern Europe in the 1970s, has ushered in a new age of public opinion research on democratic culture and politics (Heath, Fisher, & Smith, 2005). The spread of democracy to more than 80 countries throughout the globe has enabled many individual scholars and research institutes to conduct waves of national and multinational surveys that monitor people’s reactions to the process of democratization in their countries and elsewhere.

In every wave of these surveys, an overwhelming majority of the ordinary citizens expressed an affinity for democracy. In the last two waves (the fifth and sixth) of the World Values Surveys (WVS), for example, nearly nine out of ten global citizens approved of a democratic political system as a “very good” or “fairly good” way of governing their countries. Equally many also expressed their personal desire to live in a country that is “governed democratically.”1 In all regions of the world that the WVS surveyed, extremely large majorities of more than 95% of their adult populations were in favor of democracy for either themselves or their country.

In many third-wave democracies in Africa, Asia, and other regions, however, recent barometer surveys have consistently revealed that even after decades of democratic rule, avowed supporters of democracy remain attached to some of the practices of the authoritarian system in which they once lived (Carrión, 2008; Hale, 2012; Shin, 2012). In authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam, for example, majorities of those who embrace democracy still recognize their one-party autocratic regime as a democracy, and express a high level of satisfaction with the way it is “governed democratically” (Huang, Chu, & Chang, 2013).

In principle, these puzzling findings—attachment to authoritarian rule among many self-proclaimed democrats and greater citizen satisfaction with democratic governance in autocracies than in democracies—confirm the adage that “how strongly people desire democracy is meaningless unless we also know how people understand democracy” (Welzel, 2013, p. 310). In practice, survey findings indicate that ordinary people around the world do not agree much about the meaning of democracy, and many of those avowed democrats may not be fully capable of differentiating democracy from its alternatives. The crucial question then arises of whether their stated support for democracy can be considered authentic or genuine, as many other advocates of global democratization and neo-modernization assume.

A growing body of the literature on citizen conceptions of democracy is reviewed, and an alternative approach to its study is proposed. To this end, recent advances in conceptualizing democratic understanding are reviewed. Notable findings from the open-ended and closed-ended survey approaches are discussed, along with their inconsistencies and shortcomings. In view of these limitations, new notions of informed understanding and support of democracy are introduced and tested with the fifth wave of the World Values Surveys. Whether democracy is truly emerging as the most-favored system of government throughout the whole world, as advocates of global democratization and neo-modernization theses claim, is explored.


In the political science literature, democracy is widely known as one of the most popular and yet highly contested concepts with many connotations (Collier & Levitsky, 1997). Despite all those differences across the proposed definitions, there is a general scholarly agreement that understanding democracy constitutes the cognitive component of citizens’ attitudes toward its ideals and practices, and it also embraces the beliefs, information, thoughts, and knowledge we associate with it. Conceptually, therefore, understanding democracy is a highly complex subjective phenomenon, which involves much more than being merely aware of or recognizing democracy as an attitude object. It consists of the cognitive capacity to not only identify the essential properties of democracy but also differentiate its properties from those of autocracy (McClosky & Zaller, 1984; see also Cho, 2013; Shin, 2009a). The capacity to make such a differentiation is a crucial component of an informed understanding of democracy.

Some citizens can be more or less able to identify essential characteristics of democracy than others. People’s abilities can also change over time with changing exposure to relevant information. Likewise, the capacity to differentiate the properties of democracy from those of its alternatives can vary across people and time. Democratic understanding is, therefore, a multidimensional phenomenon whose characteristics vary in degree or quantity.

Furthermore, variations in each dimension can take place independent of whatever happens to the other. The capacity to differentiate democratic and autocratic regime properties, for example, can remain low or high independent of the capacity to identify those properties. Likewise, a high level of democratic identification can coexist with a low or high level of democratic differentiation. In short, the overall capacity of understanding democracy can vary not only in degree but also in kind. Both quantitative and qualitative variations should be taken into account to fully describe how much or little people understand democracy, and accurately evaluate how well or poorly they understand it.

To date, most of comparative public opinion research on the subject has measured the level and complexity of people’s capacity to identify what democracy means to them (Canache, 2012; Dalton, Shin, & Jou, 2007). Relatively little has been done to measure their capacity to differentiate its properties from their alternatives. Much less has been done to evaluate their overall capacity to identify and differentiate all those properties. As a result, the existing literature is concerned primarily with the question of how people understand democracy. Moreover, it is concerned more with the question of whether they are capable of identifying its properties than that of how complex their capacity to do so is (Canache, 2012).

To examine the level and complexity of such identifiable capacity, previous studies first determined whether survey respondents could define democracy in their own terms or could prioritize its properties. If they could do so, the studies then counted the number of those properties they named, and determined the breadth of their democratic understanding. In addition, they classified those properties into distinct categories to determine the structural complexity and substantive difference of democratic definitions (Canache, 2012). The number of the named properties is often employed as an indicator of the breadth of democratic understanding, while that of the classified categories is often used as an indicator of its complexity.

Are ordinary citizens capable of differentiating democracy from non-democracy? To address this much-neglected question, three complementary approaches have recently been proposed. The first approach focuses on abstract knowledge of democratic and authoritarian regimes by testing whether citizens can associate democracy with any of its own properties, such as free elections and the rule of law, and not with non-democratic traits, such as intolerance of political opposition and media censorship (Cho, 2013; Norris, 2011; Shin, 2012). Only those who associate democracy exclusively with its properties are considered capable of making a democratic differentiation.

The second approach evaluates a person’s ability to differentiate democracies and non-democracies (Braizat, 2010). Those who rate democracies as democracies and non-democracies as non-democracies are considered the generally capable of making a democratic differentiation. The generally capable can be divided into two groups, the fully capable and partially capable. The former are those who can accurately distinguish less-developed electoral democracies from more developed liberal democracies, while the latter are those who cannot distinguish between countries at different levels of democratic development.

The third approach, which is yet to be put into full practice, focuses exclusively on citizens of newly emerging democracies (Rose, Mishler, & Haerpfer, 1998; Shin, 2009b). Specifically, citizens are first asked to rate on a numeric scale their current democratic regime and the authoritarian regime in which they once lived in the past. Then their ratings of these regimes are dichotomized into the categories of democracy and autocracy. The dichotomized ratings of the two regimes are finally compared to formulate four types of regime perceptions: (1) democratic present and autocratic past, (2) democratic present and democratic past, (3) autocratic present and autocratic past, and (4) autocratic present and democratic past. Of the different types, the first type of the democratic present and the autocratic past is viewed as the type exhibiting the capacity to making a democratic differentiation to the fullest degree.

Finally, citizens’ conceptions of democracy can be flawed and thus need to be evaluated before their sources and consequences are explored. To evaluate the overall quality of their democratic understanding, Pippa Norris (2011) and Doh Chull Shin (2009a, 2012) proposed new conceptual tools independent of each other. Norris’s “enlightened democratic knowledge” and Shin’s “informed democratic understanding” are both built on the two-dimensional notion of knowledge, that is, people become fully knowledgeable about a concept only when they are able to identify its essential characteristics and to discriminate between those characteristics and the characteristics of all other concepts that repudiate it (McClosky & Zaller, 1984). Theoretically, therefore, these two new concepts are derived from the same principles of knowledge formation.

Conceptually, however, researchers disagree on what constitutes the essential properties of the regimes that repudiate democracy. Norris viewed the desirable outcomes of governance, such as economic prosperity and welfare, as the distinctive properties of non-democratic governance. Accordingly, she assumed that the embrace of these substantive policy outcomes as essential properties of democracy detracts from enlightened knowledge about it. She also reasoned that the more people rate such policy outcomes as essential to democracy, the less enlightened they are about democracy. The more exclusively they are attached to its procedural means, the more enlightened they become about democracy.

In contrast, Shin rejects Norris’s notion of non-democracy that holds that prosperity, welfare, and other widely desired policy outcomes constitute distinctive properties of non-democratic governance, and the presence of these properties, therefore, repudiate democracy. In the theoretical literature, there is a long tradition of defining democracy as government for the people (Dahl, Shapiro, & Cheibub, 2003). In the real world of politics as well, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals lists economic welfare as a common property of democratic as well as non-democratic political systems. In both democracies and autocracies, moreover, ordinary citizens value those substantive outcomes more than the procedures that allow them to participate in the political process. In evaluating the overall quality of people’s knowledge about democracy, therefore, Shin contends that economic prosperity and welfare should not be considered the exclusive properties of either democracy or non-democracy. Nor should they be considered antithetical to democracy.

Previous Survey Research

Since the late 1990s, a growing number of national and multinational public opinion surveys have examined a variety of new approaches and questions to measure citizen knowledge or understanding of democracy. These questions can be divided into two broad types: open-ended (unstructured) and closed-ended (structured). Either or both types of questions were asked to measure the capacity to define democracy and identify its properties. To measure the capacity to differentiate between democracy and its alternatives, all previous surveys asked two types of closed-ended questions. One type relies on numeric scales, such as Richard Rose’s Heaven/Hell scale whose values vary from –100 to +100. The other type employs vignettes, a technique that allows respondents to express their beliefs and attitudes toward democracy in a less abstract, real-life context. Between these categories, numeric scales are the more often employed.

In general, the open-ended approach seeks to identify the specific terms that people associate with democracy, and discern their dimensions and complexity. The close-ended approach, in contrast, tries to determine the breadth of democratic definitions and the priority of their various referents, such as competitive elections, civil liberties, and economic security. This approach also seeks to address the important question of how well or poorly people understand democracy.

By reviewing key findings from the recent surveys that employed these two approaches, this section seeks to highlight how ordinary people around the world define democracy in their own words, how they identify and prioritize its essential properties, and how they differentiate those properties from the properties of its alternatives.


Recent reviews of open-ended survey responses have identified a number of broad cross-national patterns of democratic conceptions. The first pattern concerns the level of awareness. According to Dalton, Shin, and Jou’s (2007) aggregate analysis of surveys conducted in 50 countries, including four established democracies,2 a majority in nearly every country offers a definition of democracy, even in nations with limited economic development and limited experience with a democratic form of government. In more recent waves of the Asian Barometer and AmericasBarometer surveys, however, majorities in all the nations were able to answer this question (Carrión, 2008; Shin & Cho, 2010). Evidently, an awareness and some understanding of democracy among ordinary people have diffused widely around the globe.

The second pattern of democratic conceptions concerns the breadth of their scope or structure. Regional barometers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America asked people to name up to three properties of democracy. Their results show that a majority or plurality of people in Africa, East Asia, and Latin America defined democracy as a phenomenon with a single characteristic. In all these regions, those who named two or more characteristics constitute a minority of less than two-fifths. Many of the respondents who offer multiple answers merely repeat or restate their initial answers (Canache, 2012, p. 11).

A third broadly cross-regional pattern concerns the valence of democratic conceptions. In all regions and countries, overwhelming majorities understood democracy positively rather than negatively. In 12 Southern African countries as a whole, for example, only 1% gave a negative definition to it (Bratton, Mattes, & Gyimah-Boadi, 2005, p. 69). In all seven East Asian societies, small minorities of 5% or less offered negative views of democracy (Chu, Diamond, Nathan, & Shin, 2008, p. 12). Evidently, only a very small minority of global citizenries does not view democracy as an essential component of the good life for themselves and their country.

In defining democracy, most citizens do not think of democracy exclusively in procedural or institutional terms, as the literature on democratic theory and international democracy building activities would suggest. Instead, they think about democracy more in terms of its intended outcomes—freedom, liberty, and rights—than its means, such as elections, majority rule, and political parties (Dalton, Shin, & Jou, 2007). Therefore, there is a wide gap between how political scientists and ordinary citizens conceive of democracy.

In defining democracy with reference to its outcomes, liberal conceptions, such as the values of freedom and liberty, are more prevalent than those based on political procedures or the socioeconomic benefits of democracy (Braizat, 2010). Of these three broad categories of conceptions, moreover, the one referring to social benefits is fairly low in most nations—averaging about a sixth of all responses (Dalton, Shin, & Jou, 2007).

In short, the open-ended approach reveals that contemporary mass publics can, by and large, define democracy in their own words, and their definitions tend to be overwhelmingly positive in valence, narrow in scope, and liberal in substance.


Do most people associate or identify with democracy only one or just few procedural or substantive properties, as their answers to open-ended questions suggest? To explore this question, a few surveys asked a large battery of closed-ended questions tapping meaning of democracy indirectly. The fifth wave of the World Values Surveys (WVS) and the sixth round of the European Social Surveys (ESS) asked a long battery of questions dealing with different regime characteristics (Welzel & Alvarez, 2014; Ferrin & Kriesi, 2016).3

In every region of the world, eight of ten regime characteristics except two authoritarian ones—military and religious intervention in politics—were rated as essential, scoring 6 or higher on a 10-point scale (see Figure 1). Scores of 1 and 10 refer, respectively, to “not at all an essential characteristic of democracy” and “an essential characteristic of democracy.”

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Figure 1. The Essentiality of Ten Regime Characteristics to Democracy.

Note: Figure entries are mean scores on 1–10 scale.

Source: 2005–2008 World Values Surveys.

A second measure of democratic understanding counts how many items each respondent mentions as essential to democracy. While a very small minority (4%) rated one or two of the eight characteristics as essential to democracy, a large majority (72%) did more than five as essential to it.4 These findings do not accord with what is known from the open-ended approach: most ordinary people understand democracy minimally or unidimensionally.5

Another notable finding from the closed-ended approach employed in the WVS and ESS is that civil liberties as a democratic regime characteristic were not the most essential to or important for democracy. In all regions that the WVS covered, liberties ranked behind elections and gender equality (see Figure 1). In the ESS also, the freedoms to express political views and criticize the government were rated as less important than six other practices of democratic governing, including those of treating citizens equally and protecting them against poverty.6 These findings raise the question of whether people do not consider liberties as the most important component of democracy, although they most often define it in terms of freedoms or liberties.


To address this question, the Asian and Arab barometers posed an exactly identical closed-ended question that asked respondents to choose the most essential of four democratic regime characteristics: elections, freedom, economic equality, and economic security.7 Citizens of 12 East Asian countries rated elections (33%) and economic security (32%) as the two most essential to democracy, and economic equality (21%) and freedom to criticize government officials (14%) as the two least essential to it (Shin & Cho, 2010).8

Likewise, people in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine also rated elections (29%) and economic security (28%) as the two most important characteristics, followed by economic equality (23%), and freedom of speech (20%) (de Regt, 2013). As East Asians did, Arabs rated political freedom as the least important of the four democratic regime properties they were asked to prioritize.

When economic security and equality are combined into a broader economic category, this economic welfare category matters in both regions over two times as much as political freedom does. This finding runs directly counter to the claim that a liberal notion of democracy is prevalent throughout the world (Dalton, Shin, & Jou, 2007; Welzel, 2013, chap. 10). It also indicates that people in the non-Western world tend to understand democracy more as government for the people than as government by the people (Lu & Shi, 2015).


Are ordinary citizens capable of discriminating between democratic and other political systems? To explore this question, the fourth round of the Afrobarometer surveys asked three vignettes, one for each of three regime types, authoritarian, electoral democratic, and liberal democratic, as listed below:

Q42B Alex lives in a country with many political parties and free elections. Everyone is free to speak their minds about politics and to vote for the party of their choice. Elections sometimes lead to a change of ruling party. In your opinion, how much of a democracy is Alex’s country?

Q42C Beatrice lives in a country with regular elections. It has one large political party and many small ones. People are free to express their opinions and to vote as they please. But so far, elections have not led to a change of ruling party. In your opinion, how much of a democracy is Beatrice’s country?

Q42D Charles lives in a country with regular elections. It has one big political party and many small ones. People are afraid to express political opinions or to vote for the opposition. The opposition is so weak that it seems that it can never win an election. In your opinion, how much of a democracy is Charles’ country?

Overall a small minority (21%) of citizens in 20 sub-Saharan African countries is fully capable of correctly differentiating all those types (see Figure 2). Proportions of the fully capable vary considerably across the countries, ranging from 12% in Burkina Paso to 32% in Kenya (see Figure 3). These findings suggest that Africans’ capacity to distinguish different types of political systems is not only very low but also highly uneven (Bratton, 2010).

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Figure 2. The Extent to which Southern Africans are Capable of Differentiating Three Different Types of Regimes.

Source: 2008 Afrobarometer Surveys.

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Figure 3. Percentages of Southern Africans Fully Capable of Differentiating.

Source: 2008 Afrobarometer Surveys.

Unlike the Afrobarometer surveys, which asked about the hypothetical political systems with which people were largely unfamiliar, the Asian Barometer Surveys (ABS) asked about political systems widely known in the scholarly community and policy circles as a democracy or an autocracy. The ABS asked respondents to evaluate China, the United States, Japan, and India on a scale ranging from complete dictatorship (1) to complete democracy (10). China and India have been chosen to explore the extent to which Asians can discriminate between democratic and authoritarian systems because these countries represent, respectively, the world’s most populous autocracy and democracy.

On the basis of their numeric ratings of China and India,9 individual respondents are classified into one of these patterns: (1) China is authoritarian and India is democratic (2) China and India are both authoritarian; (3) China is democratic and India is democratic; and (4) China is democratic and India is authoritarian. The first pattern represents the fully capable of differentiating democratic and authoritarian regimes in the real world, while the fourth pattern is the fully incapable response.

Table 1 reports the percentages falling into the four patterns for each of 12 East Asian countries. One notable finding concerns those who were unable to rate both countries on the scale. In China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the unable constitute more than half the population. In the other eight countries, only small minorities were fully capable of correctly rating China as an autocracy and India as a democracy. In three of these eight countries, the fully capable are outnumbered by the fully incapable, that is, those who rate China as a democracy and India as an autocracy.

Table 1. Patterns of regime differentiation among East Asians.


China/authoritarian India




Democratic China/authoritarian India

Democratic China/democratic India

(No Answer)







South Korea








































































Note: The bolded pattern represents the correct response.

Source: 2005–2008 Asian Barometer surveys.

As a further test of regime differentiation, the second wave of the Asian Barometer surveys asked citizens in Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Mongolia to rate the present democratic system and the past authoritarian system on a scale from complete dictatorship (1) to complete democracy (10).10 Only those who rated the present regime as a democracy and the past regime as an autocracy are considered the capable of understanding the occurrence of democratic regime change.

In all four East Asian democracies, a relatively small majority of three-fifths or less cognitively understands the democratic regime transition that occurred in their country. Decades after the transition to democracy from harsh authoritarian rule, as many as four in ten citizens of East Asian third-wave democracies have not able to recognize it.

In summary, most people around the world are conceptually aware of democracy and recognize it as a good system of government. In principle, they are also capable of identifying and prioritizing its properties. Many of those conceptually capable, however, do not discriminate between the practices of democracy and its alternatives. This raises the question of how well contemporary global citizenries understand democracy.

Informed Understanding

Informed understanding of democracy involves the capacity to identify its essential characteristics and to accurately distinguish those from the essential characteristics of authoritarian regimes. Analytically, however, it is neither possible nor desirable to identify and consider all of those essential characteristics because they vary a great deal across countries and periods of time. Therefore, it is imperative to focus on the most fundamental characteristics in order to identify the citizens who uphold an informed understanding of democracy and compare their distribution throughout the world.

To identify upholders of such an informed democratic understanding, two dimensions are considered together and a four-fold typology is proposed.11 First, identification concerns whether ordinary people are able to recognize the most fundamental of democratic and autocratic regime properties. Second, differentiation dimension is whether they are able to evaluate the essentiality of those fundamental characteristics to democracy accurately.

What proportion of global citizens hold an informed understanding of democracy? How are they distributed throughout the globe? To explore these topics, four questions were chosen from the 2005–2008 World Values Surveys. The questions asked respondents to assess the essentiality of (1) free and fair elections, (2) protection of civil liberties, (3) military take-over of governing, and (4) intervention of religious authorities in the political process. While the first two are straightforward measures of democratic tenets, the last two are roundabouts in asking about conditions that are antithetical to the democratic tenets of citizen control of the military and separation of church and state.

The ill-informed are those who can identify all the chosen regime characteristics, but misunderstand one or more as unessential or essential to democracy. The partially informed are those who fail to recognize all the properties, but do not have any mistaken view of those they can identify. The uninformed are those who are unable to not only recognize but also evaluate all of them correctly. The well-informed are those who accurately assess all of them. Specifically, they evaluate elections and civil liberties as essential to democracy, and military takeover of government and religious intervention in the political process as unessential to it.

Global publics vary across these four distinct types of democratic understanding. Those in the ill-informed pattern are the most prevalent with a plurality of 48%. They are followed by the well-informed with 39%, the partially informed with 9%, and the uninformed with 4%. When the uninformed, the partially informed, and the ill-informed are considered together as the poorly informed, they constitute a large majority of 61% of global citizenries. This notable finding raises the question of whether all the avowed supporters can be branded as well-informed supporters of democracy.

Is the prevalence of poorly informed citizens a global phenomenon, or is it confined to certain cultural zones?12 Table 2 shows that the long-democratic West is the only zone where the well-informed constitute a majority (59%) and the poorly informed a minority (41). In all six other zones, the poorly informed constitute substantial or large majorities ranging from about three-fifths in East Asia and the once-communist West to more than three-quarters in South Asia, the Muslim zone, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Table 2. Regional differences in understanding democracy.


Types of Democratic Understanding



Partially Informed


Dem. West





Eastern Europe





East Asia





South Asia





Latin America




















Source: 2005–2008 World Values Surveys.

The prevalence of the poorly informed in all regions outside the old-democratic West suggests that learning about the essential characteristics of democracy and those of its alternatives is a very long-term evolutionary process, which can take several generations. It also indicates that people come to learn about democracy through its practices, as institutional learning theory holds (Rose, Mishler, & Haerpfer, 1998). The concentration of the largest majorities of the poorly informed in the three least developed regions of the world, on the other hand, suggests that the forces of social-economic modernization also contribute to the process of democratic learning.

Another notable feature of Table 2 concerns a great deal of variation in the distribution of the ill-informed or misinformed across the world. In four cultural zones—South Asia, the Muslim zone, Southern Africa, and Latin America, those misinformed constitute a majority of the adult population (77%, 65%, 65%, and 54%, respectively). In the three other zones, they comprise minorities ranging from 34% in the fully democratized West and 36% in East Asia to 40% in post-communist Europe. Such large interregional differences raise the question of what makes citizens in some regions more misinformed about democracy than their peers in other regions. A growing body of the literature on democratic conceptions says little about the important question.

Informed Support

Larry Diamond (2013) and many other advocates of the global democratization thesis declare that democracy is universally approved as a system of government. They also proclaim that democracy has become the most favored system of government by large majorities in all regions of the world. Underlying their claims is the assumption that these majorities of avowed democrats are well informed supporters of democracy. The World Values Survey (WVS) analysis presented previously directly challenges the validity of this assumption that ordinary people express support for democracy with an accurate and full understanding of what constitutes it and what distinguishes it from its alternatives.

Can all the avowed supporters of democracy be branded as well-informed supporters of democracy, as advocates of the global democratization thesis assume? To explore this question, Figure 4 compares across seven cultural zones the percentages of the well-informed and poorly informed among those who express support for democracy. The poorly informed constitute majorities of avowed democrats in all regions except the democratized West. They are most numerous in South Asia (87%), followed by the Middle East (80%), Africa (79%), Latin America (65%), Eastern Europe (57%), and East Asia (55%). Only the democratized West has a majority of well-informed democratic supporters (61%).When all seven zones are considered together, three out of five (60%) avowed democrats are either uninformed or misinformed about the essential characteristics of democracy and its alternatives. In other words, most avowed supporters of democracy are superficial supporters who do not accurately understand its meaning.

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Figure 4. The Distribution of the Poorly and Well-Informed among Avowed.

Source: 2005–2008 World Values Surveys.

How common or uncommon is authentic support for democracy across the seven zones of the world the WVS investigated? Figure 5 reports the percentage of authentic supporters, that is, those who not only understand democracy fully and accurately but also support it exclusively of its alternatives, such as military and civilian dictatorships. Such reliable and committed democratic supporters are prevalent only in the old-democratic West. In all six other regions, they form minorities, ranging from 12% in South Asia to 41% in East Asia. There is, indeed, a significant worldwide gap between citizens who view democracy favorably and those who accurately understand and unconditionally support it.13

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Figure 5. The Distribution of Authentic and Superficial Democratic Regime Supporters.

Source: 2005–2008 World Values Surveys.

Evidently in the minds of contemporary global citizenries, democracy as a system of government, in which the masses participate and compete freely and fairly in the political process, is far from emerging as a universally valued system. Nor is it emerging as the world’s most preferred system of government. Contrary to the theses of global democratization and neo-modernization, most people in the authoritarian and post-authoritarian worlds today appear to prefer a hybrid system of mixing democratic and authoritarian politics to a liberal democracy.14

Concluding Remarks

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than two decades ago, numerous public opinion surveys have monitored and compared how ordinary citizenries react to the democratization occurring around them. These surveys revealed that most people around the world are aware of democracy to the extent to which they can define it directly in their own words or indirectly by answering a variety of closed-ended questions. These people also express support for it as a political ideal or a system of government.

Among these avowed democrats, however, as many as three-fifths are not capable of fully comprehending the fundamental properties of democracy and autocracy. Nor are they capable of evaluating the essentiality or inessentiality of those properties to democracy accurately. Only in the democratized West do authentic supporters of democracy constitute a majority. In all six other regions, large majorities or pluralities are superficial supporters who are likely to offer “lip service” to it.

In the authoritarian and post-authoritarian worlds in which a vast majority of global citizenries lives, moreover, it appears that “overt lip service” to democracy is as almost universal as it was more than a decade ago (Inglehart, 2003). Obviously, democracy has failed to take root in the minds of many citizens. Even after decades of extensive efforts to promote the global expansion of democracy, progress has been very slow in developing authentic democratic political cultures outside Western nations (Carothers, 2015).

For much of the world today, democracy represents little more than an appealing political symbol that still retains authoritarian practices. Until a great many superficial democrats who remain attached to those practices are transformed into unqualified and full supporters of democracy, it is premature to endorse the increasingly popular claim that democracy is emerging as a universal value or “the only political game in town.” It is also premature to treat all those who express support for democracy as genuine democrats, as is often implied in survey-based studies.

Further Reading

Booth, J., & Richard, P. (2014). Latin American political culture: Public opinion and democracy. Washington, DC: CQ Press.Find this resource:

    Booth, J., & Seligson, M. (2009). The legitimacy puzzle in Latin America: Political support and democracy in eight countries. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

      Dalton, R. (2004). Democratic challenges, democratic choices: The erosion of political support in advanced industrial democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

        Diamond, L., & Plattner, M. F. (Eds.). (2008). How people view democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Find this resource:

          Klingemann, H.-D., Fuchs, D., & Zielonka, J. (Eds.). (2008). Democracy and political culture in Eastern Europe. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

            Rose, R., Mishler, W., & Munro, N. (2011). Popular support for an undemocratic regime. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

              Tessler, M. (2015). Islam and the search for a political formula: How ordinary citizens in the Muslim Middle East think about Islam’s place in political life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:


                Braizat, F. (2010). What Arabs think. Journal of Democracy, 21(4), 131–138.Find this resource:

                  Bratton, M. (2010). The meaning of democracy: Anchoring the “D-word” in Africa. Journal of Democracy, 21(4), 106–113.Find this resource:

                    Bratton, M., Mattes, R., & Gyimah-Boadi, E. (2005). Public opinion, democracy, and market reform in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                      Canache, D. (2012). Citizens’ conceptualizations of democracy: Structural complexity, substantive content, and political significance. Comparative Political Studies, 45(9), 1132–1158.Find this resource:

                        Carothers, T. (2015). Democracy aid at 25: Time to choose. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), 59–73.Find this resource:

                          Carrión, J. (2008). Illiberal democracy and normative democracy: How is democracy defined in the Americas? In M. Seligson (Ed.), Challenges to democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Evidence from the AmericasBarometer (pp. 21–51). Nashville: Vanderbilt University.Find this resource:

                            Cho, Y. (2013). How well are global citizenries informed about democracy? Political Studies, 63(1), 240–258.Find this resource:

                              Chu, Y.-H., Diamond, L., Nathan, A., & Shin, D. C. (Eds.). (2008). How East Asians view democracy. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                Collier, D., & Levitsky, S. (1997). Democracy with adjectives: Conceptual innovations in comparative research. World Politics, 49(3), 430–451.Find this resource:

                                  Dahl, R., Shapiro, I., & Cheibub, J. (Eds.). (2003). The democracy sourcebook. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

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                                      de Regt, S. (2013). Arabs want democracy, but what kind? Advances in Applied Sociology, 3, 37.Find this resource:

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                                                                          (1.) The exact wording of these two questions is available from

                                                                          (2.) These democracies are Austria, Japan, Spain, and the United States.

                                                                          (3.) Further information is available at European Social Survey.

                                                                          (4.) When all ten regime characteristics, including two authoritarian ones, were taken into account, a larger majority of 77 percent rated more than five of them as essential to democracy.

                                                                          (5.) A similar analysis of the 2012 ESS reveals that all the 19 regime characteristics scored above the scale midpoint where scores of 0 and 10 indicate, respectively, “not at all important for democracy” and “extremely important for democracy.” As in the WVS, a solid majority (55%) rated all or most of these characteristics as important for democracy.

                                                                          (6.) On the 11-point scale, the freedom for every citizen to express political views, and the freedom for the media to criticize the government, scored 8.44 and 8.23, respectively. The courts’ equal treatment of all citizens and the government’s protection of all citizens against poverty registered significantly higher scores of 9.21 and 8.68, respectively.

                                                                          (8.) The latest third wave of the Asian Barometer surveys conducted in 12 East Asian countries shows that majorities of their citizens do not hold a procedure-based conception of democracy, which most political scientists do (Huang, Chu, & Chang, 2013).

                                                                          (9.) Respondents are classified on the basis of whether either or both of their country ratings are above or below the scale midpoint of 5.5.

                                                                          (10.) Scores above the scale midpoint of 5.5 indicate being democratic, while those below it refer to being authoritarian.

                                                                          (11.) Unlike Norris’s (2011) index of enlightened democratic knowledge and Welzel’s (2013) index of the liberal democratic notion, the proposed typology takes into account both qualitative and quantitative variations in citizen understanding of democracy.

                                                                          (12.) The seven zones are created by collapsing Inglehart and Welzel’s (2005) five Western zones into the two zones of the old-democratic West and the former communist West.

                                                                          (13.) The aforementioned analysis of the fourth round of Afrobarometer surveys reveals that only 6 percent of Southern Africans are well-informed and unqualified supporters of democracy, although 83 percent are generally in favor of it as a system of government.

                                                                          (14.) My own multilevel and multidimensional analysis of support for democracy among East Asians reveals that unqualified and full supporters of democracy constitute a small minority of 8 percent, while a large majority of 68 percent favors some type of a hybrid system (Shin, 2015).