What do the people think?

By Razib Khan | January 31, 2011 1:00 am

With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.

(Control + should increase font-size if it is too small)

USA Sweden Turkey Egypt Iraq
Religion “very important” 47 9 75 95 96
Politics “very important” 11 16 13 9 37
Family life “very important” 95 92 99 98 96
Most people can be trusted 39 68 5 19 41
Satisfied with life (10 out of 10) 7 12 21 11 3
Great deal of control of life (10 out of 10) 17 16 24 14 9
Men have more right to job than women 7 2 53 89 84
Trust family completely 73 94 95 96
Approve of woman as single parent 52 49 9 2
University more important for boy than girl 1 0 7 26 25
Government ownership of business should be increased (10 out of 10) 1 2 12 25 22
Hard work brings better life (10 out of 10) 19 8 21 52
Great deal of confidence in armed forces 35 4 67
Great deal of confidence in police 17 13 36
Great deal of confidence in government 5 3 28 31
Very good for political system to have strong leader 7 4 23 8 11
Very good to have democratic system 45 76 57 79 55
Complete agree, too much science, not enough faith 12 4 20 14
Religious authorities interpreting laws is an essential characteristic of democracy 2 0 11 48 19
People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy 56 79 48 79 58
Protecting civil liberties is an essential characteristic of democracy 44 66 44 57 47
Women having sames rights as men is an essential characteristic of democracy 57 84 57 51 27
Cheating on taxes always justifiable 2 1 0 1
Accepting bribe always justifiable 1 0 0 0 1
Homosexuality always justifiable 15 61 1
Abortion always justifiable 7 37 2 1
Divorce always justifiable 12 47 5 9 1
Don’t trust at all people of other religion 5 3 30 22
Don’t trust at all people of other nationality 5 2 29 40
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Politics
  • John Emerson

    The US is the lowest in this:
    Very good to have democratic system 45,

    second lowest in these:
    People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy 56,
    Great deal of confidence in government 5,

    and second highest in these:
    Great deal of confidence in armed forces 35
    Great deal of confidence in police 17.

    The cases are different: two authoritarian regimes, two democratic regimes, and one in between (Turkey). But American democracy is far unhappier than Swedish democracy, combining high levels anti-government sentiment, anti-democratic sentiment, and authoritarian sentiment. This meshes with what you’d suspect from following American politics over the last 30 years or so.

    A considerable level of suspicion of the police and of the military is wired into the Constitution and was orthodox everywhere up until 1970 or 1980. It’s really been a transformation.

  • http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/ Tom Rees

    I’m moving to Sweden. Seriously, the trust questions are very revealing.

  • Juan

    I’m curious what the trust #s look like for Latin American societies. That seems like a plausible future for America, especially the west/southwest. My gut assumption is that trust correlates inversely with diversity — specifically the odds that the authorities and ruling class of your nation/state/city share your race/ethnicity/tribe/religion.

    I’m also curious if having a market-dominant minority lowers trust as much as having a government-dominant minority. My guess would be no, but probably depends on how much control of your life you believe the market-dominant minority has.

    Lastly, is there a good term for a minority with out-sized, but not dominant power in a society? I’m not sure I’m using the term market-dominant minority correctly. A minority that has more power and wealth on average than the rest of society will provoke resentment even if it’s not close to being dominant.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    “Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.”

    Well, Hitler was elected. Is there any validity to the notion of democratic values? Strict definitions sometimes require strictly concrete thinking. Democracy is also not absolute. It evolves and takes many forms.

    By extension, many of these questions are imagination tests. The US has low numbers on questions that use the words “always,” “essential,” or “at all.” If you think that abortion is always justifiable then you are probably either ignoring the word “always” or not thinking the question through.

  • John Emerson

    If you poll people living in a democratic country where the people choose their leaders, and 44 % of the people doubt that choosing leaders is essential to democracy, and 55 % doubt that it is very good to have a democratic system, those are pretty strong indications, at the least, that there’s a large demographic which is strongly alienated from their homeland.

    I doubt that those negative results come from people who have a sophisticated and nuanced view of the definition of democracy or of the value of democracy. I strongly suspect that these 44/55 percent strongly mistrust a high proportion of other Americans and are attracted by authoritarianism.

    I don’t know of any non-Soviet, non-authoritarian definition of democracy which holds that the people choosing their leaders is not essential to democracy. There have been many regimes which wanted to call themselves democratic while not being so, but we shouldn’t take them seriously.

    I am, however, willing to grant that people in free countries (Sweden and the US) are more willing to shoot their mouths off than people in authoritarian countries where you have to watch what you say, so that comparisons based on these polls are probably misleading .

  • John Emerson

    Incidentally, Hitler was not elected. He was appointed by Hindenberg, partly because of fear of Nazi violence. The Nazis never got more than 37% of the vote.


  • http://blog.openhelix.com Trey

    I know you are giving the most extreme answers, but it took me back a bit to see only 45% of Americans thought it was “very good” to have a Democratic system. My first thought was “55% don’t?” but of course if you look at the data, 40some % thought it was ‘fairly good” to have a democratic system, so 85+% at least thought it was good.
    Yes, it does support your point, Americans seem more equivocal than I’d expect.

    Perhaps that has something to do with our history in the last 10 years. I know the Bush administration hit my idealism in democratic rule a bit, and I know the tea-party members of my family (just 3 of a few dozen :D) think we are on the path to destruction :-/, so maybe that mood is caught in these stats.

    Sad really.

  • http://blog.openhelix.com Trey

    “and 44 % of the people doubt that choosing leaders is essential to democracy, and 55 % doubt that it is very good to have a democratic system”

    @John Emerson, I think that’s a somewhat incorrect reading, phrasing of this. It’s how I read it at first, but you could also state it (after reading the survey) as “85% of Americans think a democratic system is good”

  • John Emerson

    It’s still the lowest number of the four, and “fairly good” indicates serious doubts. And as I said, I don’t know of any non-authoritarian (non-fraudulent) definition of democracy that doesn’t say that choosing leaders is essential.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    “Hitler was not elected.”

    Okay, but his party was elected with 38% of the vote in 1932. Although I am not calling Muslims or Latinos the other n-word, democracy could end certain freedoms in a Palestinian-dominant Israel or a Mexican-dominant US. If the US eventually only has one viable political party, and the Constitution is deemed to be “alive,” and, therefore, endorsing whichever views the future majority happens to hold, then America may be less free than some somewhat authoritarian societies like Singapore and China. Currently, most contentious domestic policies in America are governed by unelected leaders on the Supreme Court.

  • John Emerson

    You sound like one of the people I was talking about, Nooffensebut. Singapore and China are not somewhat authoritarian, they’re authoritarian pure and simple. And Hitler was not elected. He was appointed by Hindenberg in a suspension of normal process, and then almost immediately he suspended civil rights after declaring a state of emergency. Hindenberg was not a democrat; he was an old-school authoritarian.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Is there any validity to the notion of democratic values? Strict definitions sometimes require strictly concrete thinking. Democracy is also not absolute. It evolves and takes many forms.

    didn’t say anything about democratic values. i’m being literal: democracy is a form of government where people rule directly, or elect representatives. yes, people confuse liberal democracy with democracy. perhaps the old strict definition should be disregarded. but then what do you call the old definition of democracy as a form of gov. where the people rule or are represented? not all democracies are liberal.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    @ John Emerson

    I think you are being too absolutist. Hitler was not elected, but an election eventually brought him to power. Bush was not elected in 2000, but an election eventually brought him to power. Singapore has elections. China has elections. In my book, having the best education and opportunities matters more for being truly free than having the right to repeat only politically correct cliques without fear of losing one’s livelihood.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    re: hitler, i think john’s point was that conventional parliamentary procedures were not followed in the formation of a democratically elected gov. in regards to the nazis. but it goes to the point that if democratic moresare not deeply internalized than democratic forms can easily be utilized to transform a society into a non-democratic one.

    i think china and singapore fall into different positions on the spectrum, though china is converging onto singapore.

  • Anatol

    I’m from Turkey, thanks for posting this poll. I found it quite interesting. Actually after a bit of viewing, i realised that i might do much better in Sweden. :)

  • John Emerson

    “In my book, having the best education and opportunities matters more for being truly free than having the right to repeat only politically correct cliques without fear of losing one’s livelihood.”

    We don’t disagree about anything but about whether democracy is a good thing. What I was saying to begin with is that a startling percentage of Americans have serious doubts about the democratic form of government we actually have, and beyond that, that I suspect that many of them are authoritarians and wish for non-participational politics, and still further, that this is a rather disturbing but hardly surprising fact. I don’t know if you’re an American or not, but if you are, you would seem to fit into that group.

    In Germany democracy broke down in the face of authoritarian sentiment among Nazis (36% in 1932), Communists (10%) and a large part of the centrist and conservative majority (53%). Both the Nazis and the Communists were committed to using legal and illegal means to destabilize and destroy German democracy, and in the end Hindenberg preferred the Nazis. This strikes me more as a case when determined anti-democrats (of whom we have some here) can destroy democracy than as evidence against democracy.

    Like any other form of government, democracy is imperfect, but if you look at the whole range of other kinds of government, democracy doesn’t look that bad. I think that a lot of people in this country are giving up on democracy for poor reasons.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    I think that a Chinese or Singaporean model of technocratic semi-authoritarianism may ultimately prove to be a more successful governance model. The American democratic model has also been successful, but technology and media campaigns may diminish the importance of the specific electoral mechanisms. Also, the fact that Americans want more than they can have with regard to government services and taxation may require additional layers of decision making that are impervious to public wishes. Poor long-term economic, research, and environmental planning are obstacles to the democratic model. American values place heavy emphasis on destabilization and disobedience, such as with War for Independence and the Civil Rights Movement. I think that emphasis could threaten our future. For instance, a Kansas Christian cult protests funerals, and its detractors plan to protest the followers’ funerals. There are many possibilities for American values to lead to escalating chaos.

    I think that public sentiment is becoming obsessed with democracy, rather than anti-democratic. I am an American, and I believe in voting as a civic duty, but I think there are more important qualities in a government than elections. Elections provide a check on power, but that may not be the only effective tool against corruption. Besides, complex societies need governments that can act. If we had a more thorough democracy, we probably would not have had TARP, and we probably would have had a depression. Instead, we had an unpopular president make an unpopular decision, while Alan Greenspan’s wife criticized his handling of the economy on national television.

  • John Emerson

    I agree that American democracy isn’t doing too well. Some people are giving up too soon and, as in Germany, some are working to destabilize it (though not as many).

    A substantial part of American public opinion is incoherent, mixing authoritarianism in some areas with libertarianism in others, demanding that the budget be balanced without increasing taxes or reducing spending on most budget categories. Both the media and the political process seem to have broken down, or to have been made captive of limited and malign agendas. I am reluctant to call this the breakdown of democracy yet, though.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    So, compared to the U.S., Egypt is more religious, more sexist, less trusting, more “culturally conservative,” more socialist, and more pro-democracy.

  • Ethan

    What are the odds that the U.S. responses on democracy reflect the founders’ own ambivalence? You wouldn’t have gotten a much higher score for questions about democracy from the signers of the constitution, which is why we have a democratic *republic*. No doubt the people I’ve known are unusual but among the conservatives the flaws of simple democracy and the crucial distinction between representative and democratic government were part of the context in political discussions.

    Some knowledge of this is not limited just to the intelligent. Surely Glenn Beck goes on about this? It’s hard to have even a passing interest in the founding and yet fail to notice how much so many of them didn’t like democracy.

  • John Emerson

    They had doubts about direct democracy but established a system of representative democracy, which is what we have.

    I don’t think that the founders provide a standard, or the constitution either, really. They’re like the town whores of American politics — everyone goes to them when they need something and ignores them otherwise. The teapartiers combine a demand for direct democracy with a the proposal that the direct election of Senators be replaced by a return to the election by legislatures (i.e., corrupt back room deals). They combine a kind of populism with gold-buggery.

    None of the founders proposed an authoritarian system, which is what I think people are moving toward.

  • onur

    Oh-Willeke: “So, compared to the U.S., Egypt is more socialist, and more pro-democracy.

    I think it is largely because Egyptians are dissatisfied with the policies (especially fiscal policies) of their current authoritarian government.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “i’m being literal: democracy is a form of government where people rule directly, or elect representatives.”

    One could fairly define democracy is a system in which the common man has a say in how the country is governed. An autocrat who listens to and takes seriously the concerns of his people might be more democratic than a democratic one where the narrow majority leader ignores everyone else’s wishes. The former is basically how the regulation making process works in the United States and how a lot of non-sovereign organizations are run.

    Also, far more Swedes actually do participate in choosing a leader than in the American system due to higher voter turnout.

  • John Emerson

    “An autocrat who listens to and takes seriously the concerns of his people might be more democratic than a democratic one where the narrow majority leader ignores everyone else’s wishes.”

    That’s Castro’s argument. I believed it, 30+ years ago. It may have been true in the first years of his regime.

    Low citizen engagement is the worst problem with American democracy. There are multiple causes.

  • Clark

    John, do Tea Partiers demand direct democracy? All the ones I’ve encountered seem to go the opposite direction. They think we have too much direct democracy. You mentioned the odd focus on having State Legislatures appoint Senators rather than have direct elections. However this seems but one element of wanting to return to pre-Jacksonian views of America. I think this is more than a little bit of romanticism over the founders (versus Jackson and company). Perhaps you mean that they want direct democracy, but at a local level. (I often wonder how many tea partiers actually focus on local government though)

  • John Emerson

    When dealing with non-teaparty elected representatives, they demand everything: access to the representatives and their offices, answers to their questions and accusations, and obedeince on the issues. The representatives could just say “The people who voted for me wanted different things than you do, and you didn’t vote for me, and I represent them.” But that infuriates them.

    In other contexts they’re verbally opposed to direct democracy. They also claim to be populists but are mostly hard money gold bugs, the opposite of a populist.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    John, I think you might be making too much out of the survey results for the U.S. on the democracy question. Here’s how some other Anglosphere countries answered the “People choose their leaders in free elections is essential…” question, with Sweden and Switzerland for comparison:

    Great Britain – 46.4%
    U.S. – 56%
    Canada – 50.2%
    Australia – 63.1 %
    Sweden – 79.0 %
    Switzerland – 65.7 %

    So the U.S. does “better” than both the UK and Canada, and a bit worse than Australia and Switzerland. Sweden appears to be the outlier. It would seem the oddly low response you’re seeing for the U.S. could just as well be an Anglo-cultural effect than a more sinister byproduct of a recent decay in the quality of political discourse.

  • Clark

    John, I’ll fully agree that tea partiers thus far have focused on politicians and not convincing their fellow citizens that their ideas are good ones. I suspect they’ll soon run up against the political realities of their being a fairly small political niche. Right now they either are naive about that or in denial about it. I suspect that this is part of the fact most of them are new to politics and tend to only talk with folks who agree with them.

    I’m not sure I agree with your other comments. I think there’s a lot to criticize the tea party for. Naivete and ignorance of a lot of facts being high on the list. However they are hardly alone in that. I wish more Americans got involved with politics and more importantly got well informed on the issues. Instead we’ve had a decade where far too many (on all sides of the issues) tend to take confirmation bias as something to be praised and sought after. There’s a huge echo chamber for far too many. It’s just that for a while it was all shrill anti-Bush comments and now we’re seeing the quasi-libertarian small government folks get all the press. Honestly a lot of this is, I believe, due to the mainstream media (with whom I include Fox) who are more focused on sound bite battles rather than actually getting to the meat of the issues.

    In any case I’m fairly confident that few of the tea party agendas will get passed. What they do bring that is valuable is a focus on government spending, which is long overdue. I just wish we could have some serious discussion of solving it rather than the typical impasse.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    In a parliamentary system, the representatives form coalitions and appoint a “government” rather than people directly electing a president. Hitler never obtained a majority of votes (even together with the German National People’s Party), but the Nazis did have a plurality. Steven Harper was appointed prime minister of a minority government in 2006, and nobody found it surprising since he had a plurality.

  • dave chamberlin

    You could make a new tag labeled “Most People are Morons” and put this thread under that category as well. Many exceptions of course, such as most of Sweden and the commentators here, but who else but Razib is going to get the message out there. Nobody in the commercial news biz is too motivated to report on subjects that outright insult large sections of their intended auduence.

  • John Emerson

    Hitler didn’t win or have a plurality in either election. Hindenberg had a 49% plurality in the first election and an absolute 53% majority in the runoff. Hitler gained power when Hindenberg (elected) appointed him Chancellor. When Hindenberg died Hitler abolished the office of President.

    Democrcies aren’t necessarily perfect, but the German 1932 experience isn’t really an example of what people are talking about. The electoral Nazi Party was backed by paramilitaries who intimidated everyone else.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “So the U.S. does “better” than both the UK and Canada”

    This suggests that some people in those countries read the question as referring to direct election of a President as opposed to indirect election of a Prime Minister.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    ohwilleke – that might be. And of course many people in America are aware that “Electors” elect the president, not the people directly. So there might be some interpretive noise going on in these results.

    Instead of looking at just the most extreme positive response, we can look at the weighted responses based on the 1 thru 10 scale the survey provided (where 10 is most positive). Here, the U.S. does indeed come out on the low end of a selection of 10 modern democracies responding to the question about electing one’s leaders:

    Sweden 9.67
    Germany 9.22
    Norway 9.17
    Switzerland 9.11
    Australia 8.78
    Total 8.71
    Taiwan 8.69
    Canada 8.67
    Spain 8.59
    Great Britain 8.45
    Netherlands 8.34
    United States 8.33
    South Korea 8.31
    France 8.16
    Japan 8.04

  • http://bluetenlese.wordpress.com M. Möhling

    …Hindenburg, fwiw.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    ‘People choosing their own leaders’ is not an essential feature of democracy, much less part of its definition. It is entirely possible to have a democracy with no leaders at all.

    You’re confusing representative democracy with democracy as a whole, Razib. The category is much broader than your statements would suggest.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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