Europeans’ Understandings and Evaluations of Democracy

Topline Results from Round 6 of the European Social Survey


The ESS Round 6 module on attitudes to democracy provides us with a uniquely detailed view of Europeans’ attitudes to democracy. 
Democracy as an ideal is strongly supported by the public in almost all ESS countries. 

Furthermore, the public generally holds a broad view of democracy and considers it at least fairly important that, as well as meeting the basic procedural requirements of free and fair elections and equality before the law, democracy also delivers social outcomes and opportunities for citizen participation. However, 
the meaning that people attach to democracy and the type of democracy that is supported does vary within and across countries; there are differences in terms of the attributes that people consider essential for democracy. Whereas some Europeans hold a more restricted conception of democracy - emphasising only some procedural aspects of democracy such as free and fair elections as being essential for democracy - others have a broader notion of what democracy should 
be, encompassing several different theoretical models of democracy: the liberal model, the social model and the direct democracy model.

As for evaluations of how well democracy is seen to work in particular countries, Round 6 of the ESS provide invaluable and precise data about Europeans’ perceptions of their countries’ democracies. The data show that evaluations of 
actual democratic performance in most countries are relatively low and that democracy in all countries falls short of people’s expectations of what democracy should be. Although beyond the scope of this report, these findings suggest that a careful look at the public’s evaluations of different aspects of democracy could help to identify the main issues that European democracies need to address.

Lastly, findings from the ESS indicate that democratic performance is more important than economic performance in determining attitudes to democracy. This suggests that the recent economic crisis in Europe need not necessarily have negative consequences for democracy. 

However, with only cross-sectional data from one point in time available, it is currently premature to give any guarantee for the future regarding Europeans’ long-term commitment to democracy. 

The role of the ESS in monitoring any future changes in attitudes to democracy will be of major importance.