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. His publication was the most read article in the internationally renowned 'Journal of Democracy' last year, reaching number 1 in the ranking.

[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 evaluation 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 the generational rise in emancipatory values has so far been most advanced in Western societies, the trend nevertheless seems to be global in nature and to be affecting all regions of the world at different rates," says Christian Welzel. One of the reasons is increasing prosperity: "As soon as basic needs are secured, 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 dictatorship could not 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.

Apart from rising prosperity, the political scientist cites expanding education as the real driver of the rise in emancipatory values: "All over the world, people are experiencing more schooling. The cognitive mobilisation that this sets in motion enables a growing number of people to make independent judgements. And those who have once learned to think for themselves no longer want to be patronised about what they should believe and do. At that moment, the spark of enlightenment ignites, opening the human mind to emancipatory values. It then becomes difficult for dictators," the researcher explains. Overall, emancipatory values increase from generation to generation, because they are passed on by young people: "In the case of Brexit or the Trump election, the older parts of the population in particular still 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