Bright Prospects for Democracy

2021-06-07 Political scientist Prof. Dr. Christian Welzel has analysed worldwide regime trends of the past 120 years in order to correlate them with the development of value orientations in different societies. His core thesis is optimistic: in the long run, expanding education and growing prosperity give a strong boost to emancipative values, which in turn create the mental basis for flourishing democracies.

[Translate to Englisch:] Christian Welzel im Gespräch ©Leuphana
"In the long run, the odds are in favour of democracy and against autocracy"

Many forecasts sound pessimistic: authoritarian rulers hit the headlines, and even the supposedly stable democracies in the global North are unsettled by the rise of right-wing populist parties. In short: democracy is in danger. Political scientist Prof. Dr. Christian Welzel, however, disagrees with the deconsolidation thesis: "The current decline is part of the political life cycle and not a new phenomenon historically. The long-term view is decisive. And here I even see a strengthening of democracy in the data," says the professor of political culture research and Vice President of the World Value Survey Association.

Based on the World Value Survey, Christian Welzel analysed public opinion data from all parts of the world and correlated it with global regime trends going back to the year 1900. The analysis focused on attitudes towards emancipatory values: For example, how important are gender justice, protection of freedom of expression, access to political office or equality of opportunity to people? "It is misleading to ask people directly about their approval of democracy because conceptions of democracy differ too much between cultures. For example, 50 per cent or more of people in Kyrgyzstan or Zimbabwe say that obedience to those in power is an 'essential' feature of democracy. In Ethiopia and Iran, a fair distribution of income reaches the same percentage," Welzel explains.

His analysis of emancipatory values does not show a general decline in support for democracy worldwide - on the contrary: "The correlation between people's emancipatory values and the state of democracy is striking. While this change has so far been most advanced in Western societies, the trend seems to be global in nature and to be affecting all regions of the world at different rates," says Christian Welzel. The reason is, among other things, increasing living standards: "As soon as basic needs are met, emancipatory values gain in importance," explains the political scientist. Even dictatorships with thriving economies, such as Franco's Spain in the 1970s, are not a counterargument to this: "Precisely because the economy was growing at the time, the regime was unable to hold on. Nevertheless, political measures can hinder democratisation processes, such as China's Silk Road Initiative: "National missions create pressure to conform: There is the West; we are different. Emancipatory values do not fit with this attitude," explains Christian Welzel.

In addition to prosperity, the political scientist identifies increasing education as a strong driver of democracy: "All over the world, people benefit from more school education. We are experiencing a cognitive mobilisation that leads to the point of enlightenment. Things then become difficult for dictators," the researcher explains. Overall, emancipatory values increase from generation to generation because young people pass them on: "With Brexit or the Trump election, it was still the older parts of the population in particular who voted in favour," Welzel explains.

Despite the recent headlines in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Belarus and elsewhere, the global trend reflects the success of modernisation: "In the long run, the odds are in favour of democracy and against autocracy," says Christian Welzel.


  • Prof. Dr. Christian Welzel