Why so many voters are becoming disillusioned with democracy is an important question that requires a comprehensive and cohesive answer.

When I noticed that Anne Applebaum and Ian Bremmer had recorded a conversation about disillusioned voters and contemporary authoritarianism, I was very interested to hear what they had to say. Within their wide-ranging conversation they discussed why voters might be disappointed with democracy, why democratic institutions are frequently described as being too slow, whether different factors are leading to disillusionment and authoritarianism in Europe and the United States, why President Putin’s regime and the Chinese Communist Party show every Western democratic failure to their citizens, and why democracy remains appealing to many citizens in authoritarian states. The picture of what democracy’s troubled times look like that Applebaum and Bremmer created is comprehensive, but they fail to provide a cohesive cause for the effects they describe.

Anne Applebaum On Authoritarianism & Disillusioned Voters | Interview | GZERO World with Ian Bremmer:

In order to provide a cohesive explanation for all of the issues that were raised in their conversation, I had to distil what had been said into a single question, which would point me in the direction of an underlying cause, rather than another effect. I settled on the following question after several rounds of Five Whys and checking for bias:

What single factor can cause democratic voters to become disillusioned with democracy, while at the same time motivating citizens of authoritarian states to desire democracy?

As this is a blog post, and you have limited time, I will jump straight to the answer.

What voters who have become disillusioned with democracy have in common with citizens in authoritarian states who want democracy is that their expectations have not been met.

If, after reading the previous sentence, you now have a puzzled and/or annoyed expression on your face, then please take a deep breath and let me try to explain what I mean.

Expectations exist on a spectrum, and people can become dissatisfied and politically motivated when expectations at both ends of their spectrum of expectations are not met.

In the 1960s Ted Robert Gurr began decades of important research into what leads to political instability and upheaval. As Gurr accumulated information and developed insights, he identified unmet expectations as a significant cause of political tension and action. From Gurr’s perspective, people have two important types of expectation, which mark the opposite ends of their spectrum of expectations: they expect that circumstances should get better, and they expect that circumstances should not get worse. If people’s expectations that circumstances should get better are not met, then they are likely to be frustrated, but they can at least console themselves that circumstances have not become worse; but if circumstances also proceed to get worse, then people have significant reasons to question the legitimacy of the political system they live under, as well as why they should continue to support it. Thus expectations exist along a spectrum, and people are unlikely to remain passive and compliant if a political system cannot meet either (or both) of their expectations.

Ted Robert Gurr died in 2017, so I couldn’t find a recent online presentation for you to watch/listen to in order to gain a deeper understanding of his work. Instead, I have included a presentation by Nat Ware, whose work incorporates a similar spectrum of expectations, but from the perspective of how unmet expectations lead to unhappiness rather than political action. In this presentation Ware does not consider what people do after unmet expectations lead to unhappiness, and it would have been interesting to see what Gurr would have made of his work.

Why we’re unhappy – the expectation gap | Nat Ware | TEDxKlagenfurt:

Using this spectrum of expectations, we can now explain how unmet expectations can cause voters to become disillusioned with democracy. For the decades since World War II, most established democracies have been promising their citizens that circumstances will continue to get better, but since 9/11 and the Global Financial Crisis these claims have become progressively less credible. Very little ground has been made to counter climate change, systemic unemployment, or growing inequality over the last twenty years. Many democratic citizens have given up on the expectation that their circumstances of life will get better, and are now convinced that their circumstances are becoming worse. If democratic citizens believe that the democratic system has not, or will not, meet their expectations, then they have little reason to support a system that has not lived up to its promise, or its promises.

We can also apply this spectrum of expectations to authoritarian states. The Chinese Communist Party has managed to deliver an increased physical quality of life that President Putin’s regime has not managed to provide, so the results in terms of expecting that circumstances should get better are mixed under authoritarian regimes. However, both states have failed to meet their citizens’ expectations that circumstances should not get worse. The lack of rule of law and the arbitrary nature of political power in both states lead to citizens knowing that their circumstances can get worse at any moment, if the state (or its representatives) want what they have, or want to make a scape-goat out of someone. Authoritarian regimes work hard to focus their citizens on democracies failings, but, no matter how much anti-democratic media they produce, they can’t entirely distract their citizens from recognising the precarious nature of life and expectations under a capricious regime.

To consider expectations from a state’s perspective, a democracy doesn’t expect very much from its citizens, unless there is a pandemic or a war, while an authoritarian regime expects compliance from its citizens at all times, immaterial of what this costs them. It is certainly frustrating to not have our expectations met in a democratic state, but it is definitely preferable to being sacrificed to an authoritarian state’s expectations. It is ironic that so many democratic citizens do not believe it is worth the effort to reform the democratic system, while authoritarian states are worried that they can’t entirely distract or terrorise their citizens from having democratic expectations.

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