Respect for US democracy in decline around the world, Pew survey finds

·4-min read

The world’s advanced economies still look with envy at America’s military strength, its technological prowess, its universities and its high-quality entertainment – but much less so nowadays at perhaps the most famous US export of all: democracy.

These were the results of a new survey from the Pew Research Centre, which found that opinions of America’s political system have declined overseas even as other forms of US power remain in high regard.

The question had three answers: US democracy is a good example for other countries to follow; used to be a good example, but not in recent years; or has never been a good example.

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“Few believe US democracy, at least in its current state, serves as a good model for other nations,” said the report, drawn from responses to Pew’s global attitudes survey, which surveyed more than 16,000 adults from 16 advanced economies between March and May, and another 2,500 adults in the US during early February.

More than half of the global respondents – 57 per cent – said that US democracy used to be a good example, “but has not been in recent years”, the report said.

Chart: Pew Research Centre
Chart: Pew Research Centre

Americans themselves share those views, the report added: “72 per cent say US democracy used to be a good example for others to follow but has not been recently.”

China was not one of the nations surveyed by Pew, but the report highlights an issue that US President Joe Biden has identified as crucial to the increasingly tense competition between the two nations.

Since taking office in January, Biden has sought to convince the American public and the rest of the world that democracy – even with its bitter partisanship and gridlock – can still keep up with authoritarian nations like China, where decisions are made from the top and public dissent is often crushed by the state.

Even in his domestic policy agenda, Biden has made the strength and health of US democracy a central issue, as he tries to persuade reluctant members of the US Congress to spend more money on infrastructure and health care.

“The autocrats of the world believe the world is moving so rapidly that democracies can’t generate consensus quickly enough to bring their people together to get things done,” Biden said last month.

“They believe they’ll win – they’ll win the day and they can dictate their way forward and leave us behind,” he said. “They’re betting, for the first time, we won’t respond to this inflection point in history, that we’ll fail to rise to the occasion.”

US President Joe Biden has made the health and strength of US democracy an element of both his foreign and domestic policies. Photo: AFP
US President Joe Biden has made the health and strength of US democracy an element of both his foreign and domestic policies. Photo: AFP

Biden is also scheduled to host a virtual meeting of government officials and civil society leaders later this year, billed as a “summit for democracy”, to rally support for democracy as an alternative to rising authoritarianism around the world.

Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew and an author of the report, said that opinions of American democracy were also related to global views on whether the US government respected the individual freedoms of its people.

That perception has improved under Biden compared to during the administration of former president Donald Trump, the report said – although some nations still see democracy as worse now than under former president Barack Obama, who preceded Trump.

“Yes it can rebound,” Silver said. “It did fully in some places. It did not fully everywhere.”

Negative views of China continue to dominate its international image, survey finds

Respondents also expressed a “great deal of concern” about racial and ethnic discrimination in the US.

“Between 82 per cent and 95 per cent in every public outside of the US believe this kind of discrimination is at least a somewhat serious problem, and more than four in 10 call it very serious,” the report said.

Even as global views of American democracy decline, China’s image around the world has worsened in recent years.

“We also ask that about China,” Silver said, referring to whether the government respects people’s freedoms. “In almost no public survey did more than a third of people say that China respects the personal freedoms of its people, and in most places it was closer to around 10 per cent or so.”

“And so while we see that the US – in general, views of whether or not the US respects the personal freedoms of its people have fluctuated,” she added, “by wide margins, in every single public survey, more people think that the US does this than China.”

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