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Perceptions of democracy and the danger of authoritarian exploitation

May 07, 2024 • By Joseph Noonan
Source: TapTheForwardAssist, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Noonan is a doctoral student at Stockholm University, former staff member at International IDEA, and frequent contributor to the Institute’s work. He assisted International IDEA in the development of the PODS report and participated in the launch workshop. The following guest blog post reflects on some of the ideas raised in that workshop.

International IDEA’s recently published Perceptions of Democracy Survey (PODS) brings a different perspective to the assessment of democratic quality -- by international organizations and academics alike. Two points stand out in particular: (1) the divergence between expert and citizen evaluations, and (2) the widespread (but still well below majority) embrace of authoritarian approaches to government. Both points warn of a well of democratic discontent that could be exploited by political actors with autocratic intentions.

Conflicts between public perceptions and expert judgements can cause a crisis of legitimacy for expertise, and in turn for our understanding of democratic performance. The PODS report highlights the disconnect between public perceptions and expert assessments of credible elections and access to justice. Which data source should policy makers treat as being most authoritative? Should they emphasize expert judgement over public perception, or vice versa? 

I believe a middle ground approach is more fruitful. Fundamentally, these measurements capture two distinct phenomena. While valid concerns can be raised about reliance on expert-coded measures, in my view they are essential for understanding the quality of democracy. Public perceptions on the other hand, capture views of legitimacy, and trust in these institutions among the public. As a democratic consensus among the governed is necessary for the legitimacy of democratic governance, these perceptions are important to understanding democratic quality. 

Using both the PODS data and the GSoD Indices can be a path forward for a holistic assessment of democracy. It would be counter-productive to average the scores between these data sources. Rather, these assessments mean different things. For instance, in a country with high expert ratings and negative public perceptions (for instance Romania or the United States) this could indicate room for would-be autocrats to mobilize on this discontent. However, because the institutions may be strong (as indicated by high expert assessments) they may be resilient to antidemocratic attacks. On the other side, positive public perceptions, with low expert ratings (such as Iraq), may indicate that the popular assessment is based on factors beyond those traditionally recognized as indicators of democracy. 

Figure 1: Expert and popular assessments of credible elections

I would perceive the highest level of risk to democracy in countries that have both weaker expert ratings and weak public confidence. This implies strong risks that political elites can use this discontent to come to power, and that institutions may not be robust enough to safeguard democracy. I believe this approach of considering both data sources together would allow for a nuanced understanding of the interactions between public perceptions of democracy and the quality of democratic institutions.

Special attention should be paid to how dissatisfaction with, and lack of confidence in, democratic institutions could be utilized by leaders with autocratic ambitions who use these grievances to gain political power. Perceptions alone do not cause democratic backsliding, rather, they enable autocrats to come to power, not by coups and bloodshed, but through the ballot box. Beyond the well of autocratic support found in many of the countries surveyed in PODS, we also know that voters often do not punish undemocratic behaviour in the face of policy or partisan trade-offs (Cohen and Smith 2016Graham and Svolik 2020Saikkonen and Christensen 2022). Citizens rationalize undemocratic actions they support as democratic while rationalizing democratic actions they oppose as undemocratic (Krishnarajan, 2022). This link between perceptions and political power needs to be emphasized, as leaders with autocratic ambitions can exploit both weak institutions and public discontent to consolidate power. 

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

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About the authors

Joseph Noonan
Joseph Noonan
Doctoral candidate, Stockholm University
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