With every new Lowy Institute Poll since 2012 has come another round of worry about the state of democracy in Australia. For the last five years we have asked Australians about their views of democracy when compared to other systems of government. Here's the summary of the responses, from the latest poll published yesterday:
The numbers have not shifted much this year, but the ambivalence about democracy shown again in 2017 was enough to provoke comment from the NY Times in an infographic headed 'Australia's Dark Vision of the World'. Particularly alarming was the fact that support for democracy was appreciably lower among younger people. Only 52% of younger Australians aged 18–29 years agree that democracy is the preferable form of government, against 60% overall.
Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, debate about the rise of populism and the decline of democratic values worldwide has been in vogue, and the Journal of Democracy has been part of that discussion. In 2016 and 2017 the Journal published two articles showing evidence of worldwide 'democratic deconsolidation'. But these articles provoked strong responses, which the Journal of Democracy published on its website in April.
Among the arguments made by the respondents, one claimed there is no clear statistical evidence for a decline in support for democracy. Another essay argues that populist sentiment has been pretty stable over time, and in fact it may be shrinking and becoming concentrated among an ageing cohort. But populist parties are better organised, and mainstream parties which may previously have been able to co-opt populist sentiment are getting weaker.
It may also be that, if opinion polls show decline in support for democracy over time, our definition of democracy is changing: 'the moral values on which people base their democratic support have turned dramatically more liberal over the generations. As a consequence, support for democracy has changed its meaning: while older generations continue to endorse illiberal notions of democracy, younger generations support an unequivocally liberal notion.' So a drop in support for democracy, particularly among the young, may reflect rising expectations of what a democracy should be able to do.
Photo by Flickr user Maryland GovPics.