Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

What Can Improve Democracy?

4. Citizen behavior and individual rights and equality

Democracy – which, even in its most minimal form, requires the selection of governments through elections – necessarily relies on the people. Citizens must vote for representatives or policies, and, some would argue, are responsible for being informed and for holding politicians accountable via elections or protests. But, across the 24 countries surveyed, citizen behavior regularly comes up as an area that requires change in order for democracy to work better. The issue ranks in the top five coded in most countries and is among the top three issues in about half of those surveyed. (In this analysis, “citizens” refers to all inhabitants of each country, not the just legal residents.)

“Democracy is a precious thing that needs our constant participation and protection. The more we participate, the better it is. We should not shrug our shoulders and say, ‘I don’t care about politics,’ as life is political and we need to look after it.”

Woman, 70, Australia

Many scholarly conceptions of democracy – and particularly liberal democracy – also hinge on people having the ability to enjoy independence, rights and freedoms. Yet having more freedoms, better-protected freedoms or equitably implemented freedoms are still areas in which many still see need for improvement. These issues are particularly salient in some countries that were governed by right-wing populist parties during the survey field period, ranking in the top five of the 17 substantive topics coded in Hungary, Italy and Poland. (For more information on how we classify populist parties, refer to Appendix E.) Individual rights and equality is also a top issue in Israel, though it is raised substantially more often by Arab Israelis than Jewish Israelis.

Citizen behavior

A table showing that Many think citizens need to make changes to improve democracy

In 20 of the 24 countries surveyed, improving how people operate within their democracy is among the top five issues coded. In Israel, Italy, Japan and Sweden, citizens are the second-most mentioned topic.

“More people should vote and give their opinion. Democracy doesn’t work unless people give their views. Otherwise, a minority will be in control and things can turn fanatical.”

Man, 77, UK

In some countries, those with higher levels of education are more likely than those with lower levels to mention citizens as an area where improvements are needed. For example, in Italy, 19% of respondents with a post-secondary degree or more education mention citizens, compared with 10% of those with less schooling.

When it comes to how citizens can change, a few broad themes are dominant, including the need for citizens to be more informed, to participate more and to generally be better.

Citizens need to be more informed

One Australian respondent summed up the need for citizens to be informed using a quote often ascribed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” It echoes concerns raised in other countries that citizens need to “do due diligence before voting” and have “more awareness” or “more interest” in politics. In Japan, one woman argued that it’s necessary “for each person to have a strong opinion about politics,” while a woman in Greece said, “Citizens should be politically active and critical thinkers.”

The desire for an engaged and knowledgeable public stems in part from concerns that uninformed citizens can be misled. One Japanese woman said, “The people are too apathetic about politics, and they go ahead and pass anything.” An American man noted that “media is an echo chamber and politicians control the narrative. Having critical thinking skills and being more informed can be antidotes to these problems.”

In the Netherlands, concerns about being misled by politicians extended to voters “listening to populists on social media.” (The survey was fielded in the Netherlands prior to the election of right-wing populist Geert Wilders.) A Spaniard wanted citizens to “have memory so as not to repeat history.” And an Australian respondent emphasized the need for voters to research who or what is on the ballot before they turn up at the voting booth, so they don’t “make up their mind at the doorstep.”

“Start from the school system: teach civics. Educate young Italians and others on the concept of democracy. Everyone, from politicians to administrations, should practice it and set an example to increase democratic life.”

Man, 85, Italy

Some call for educational changes to remedy these issues, as in the case of one Canadian man who wanted his country’s education system “to teach people how to think in order to make democracy flourish.” In Sweden, there were specific calls not only for teaching social studies to “raise awareness of democracy” but also for people to learn the Swedish language to participate more fully. (For more on how people want to change education, read Chapter 3.)

Certain respondents go so far as to argue that citizens need to demonstrate they are informed via some sort of knowledge test prior to voting. “Democracy would improve if you could only vote if you could prove that you had a good understanding of politics or a certain IQ – like 100 or higher. People need to be better informed at school about how the political system works and demonstrate that they understand,” said a Dutch woman. One American man said, “Basic knowledge of the Constitution should be a requirement for registering to vote.”

Citizens need to participate more

The type of citizen behavior people want varies, from voting to protesting to simply “participating more.” But the general idea that citizens should take action rather than complain is clear in some responses. “Citizen activity is necessary. Many don’t follow politics because they view it as negative, but there must be some way to get more people involved in a system to help change it, rather than complaining constantly about how depressing politics is,” said a man in the U.S.

“Let citizens raise their voices and fight for their rights.”

Woman, 30, Mexico

Certain people focus on turnout at the polls – “exercising your right to vote.” As one Italian man said: “We need a culture of more participation. Right now, I see that only 40% of people go to the polls. I wish people were more informed. Politicians are raising empty citizens.” Some fixate on turnout among specific groups of people. A 29-year-old British man said, “I think democracy would improve if the younger people voted more. At the minute, a lot of decisions are made by older people who don’t understand the younger generation.”

But opportunities to vote are usually infrequent, and some feel that citizens should do more between elections. “If we want something to be done in a certain way, we all need to be in the streets demanding it. Everything should not be limited to a single vote every four years. It should be done day by day according to what is needed at that moment,” said a Spanish woman. A German man echoed this idea: “There should be more people in the streets. Germans are a bit cowardly. They should fight for many things and not give up.”

Still, some respondents raise concern about the effect of too much protest. In France, for example, one man noted that citizens should “trust the elected president and government and not always be against them. The right to strike must be used less often because it disturbs fellow citizens.” A French woman echoed the sentiment, saying, “A little more respect for others is needed. Democracy is good. Take to the streets, sure, but don’t break things.”

Citizens need to be better

Concerns about overall “citizen quality” run the gamut. In broad terms, there is a desire to “raise the cultural level of the country” or to see “care, patience, harmony, community, communication. Something not found here in a long time. I’m not sure how to get it back.” Respondents note the need for “greater personal morality” or “investment in the welfare of neighbors,” and place importance on “thinking of everybody. There are a lot of people who pursue dogmatic thought and only their own interests.”

People also call for unity: “Everything would improve if we thought that we were not so different from each other. Treat everyone equally. The person we meet is ‘like myself’ and just as valuable,” said one Swedish woman. An Indian man said, “To improve India, everyone should be in unison and work shoulder to shoulder.” Responses sometimes focus on societal divisions which need to be overcome – like those between secular and religious people in Israel, the North and South in Italy, tribes in Kenya, religious groups in Nigeria, generations in South Korea, social classes in Spain, or Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.

“We should respect others instead of disparaging them.”

Man, 70, South Korea

Tolerance is also a key quality people want to see in their society. “I think we need more respect, like for religion and skin color, race, homosexuality and financial conditions,” said one Brazilian woman. A French woman explained that, in her view, democracy would be improved “if we knew how to listen to each other and respect one another, if there was respect for individual beliefs and lifestyles and respect for each other within the law.” In Canada, one of these calls for tolerance extended to “being less afraid that Canada will be less White or Caucasian” and instead embracing diversity, as “immigrants enrich the country’s system with their views.”

Still, even while some U.S. respondents note the need for things like “being more inclusive and less racist,” others seem to feel that too much time is being spent on questions of diversity or inclusion. One American woman said, “We need to stop worrying about people’s pronouns so much and worry about making the country more economically sound,” while another noted the need to “stop political correctness.” In Australia, too, there were calls for “a whole lot less wokeness. People’s feelings or the way they interpret something can’t dictate what is legal and what is not.”

“We need to educate the next generation about democracy, its importance, its fragility, its value and what will happen if we lose it.”

Man, 73, Israel

These contradictions – some people calling for citizens to behave in one way while others argue for the opposite – are pervasive in Israel. The survey was conducted at a time when the country was awash in protests against judicial reform. To that end, some Israelis called for citizens “to demonstrate and prevent the legal coup from happening,” while others wanted people to desist and “prevent the demonstrations from the left from leading to anarchy.” Still, while some Jewish Israelis expressed sentiments like “remember that we are all Jews, we are all one nation,” the sentiment expressed by some Arab Israeli respondents was quite different: “Show tolerance toward others, including minorities.” (For more on contradictions within a country, read the report overview.)

Steps citizens can take

“Always stay in conversation with each other. No quarreling. Listen well to one another. Laugh and do fun things together to develop positivity. Be practically oriented and build things together.”

Woman, 43, Netherlands

A Polish man said, “Democracy here sucks because people can’t talk calmly, they just start arguing right away.” And the broader sentiment of improving communication comes up in a few different countries. For example, in South Africa, respondents called for “more polite communication” and “being patient with each other.” In many other countries, people emphasize that learning to speak respectfully and listen can help fix democracy.

Specific suggestions also emerge. In the U.S., one man offered a prescription to the problem of citizen quality: “Everybody just get off social media for a month. Actually talk to your neighbors. There’s a lot more we agree on than what the echo chamber would have you believe.” And in Australia, a woman focused on the need to just slow down: “Sometimes, I think people are in too big of a rush and don’t communicate much with their neighbors. I think we need to do more interacting with neighbors and friends because now people get into their car and pull their garage door down. We need more communication.”

Individual rights and equality

A table showing that Some emphasize individual rights and equality as a way to improve democracy

Another suggestion to improve democracy centers on people having individual rights that are protected properly so they can participate in democracy.

In Hungary, Israel, Italy and Poland, the issue ranks in the top five of the 17 substantive codes. It ranks in the top 10 in most other countries.

“For everyone to have the freedom to be as they are and to say and do what they want.”

Woman, 71, Netherlands

In some countries, women are more likely to mention rights and equality than men. For example, 9% of women in Sweden mention the issue, compared with 4% of men.

In Israel, people on the ideological left (23%) are significantly more likely to bring up equality and individual rights than those in the center (11%) or on the right (4%). Even more starkly, Arab Israelis are 15 times more likely than Jewish Israelis to mention individual rights and equality (44% vs. 3%).

Black South Africans are more likely than White South Africans to mention individual rights, though the difference is much more muted (3% vs. less than 1%).

Across the 24 countries surveyed, respondents sound general calls for individual rights – such as “equality for all” and “freedom of speech should be nonconditional” – as well as focus on specific grievances and inequities related to gender, race, caste and more. Still, some express concern that an emphasis on addressing inequality can go too far, to the effect of silencing viewpoints or creating “reverse racism.”

More protected freedoms

Generic calls for equality center around the notion that a system is flawed when “democracy is not the same for everyone.” As one man in Japan expressed: “We should conduct politics based on the idea that all citizens should be equal.”

“Make sure everyone gets a fair go. All individuals are included, not excluded.”

Man, 50, Australia

People also bring up specific freedoms they would like protected, such as freedom of speech. Several respondents in the UK, for example, bemoan what they perceive to be growing censorship: “Freedom of speech is being closed down, meaning that people cannot say what they would like to say,” said one British man. People in the U.S. and Argentina express similar concerns, and one woman in Kenya emphasized the need for “everyone to be given a chance to express their opinion without the police subduing anyone who thinks differently.” Others see free speech as central to democracy, as in the case of an Australian woman who said, “We need to protect freedom of speech since it promotes honest, open dialogue for healthy debate and improvements to our culture.” A German woman cut to the core of the issue, stating that democracy would improve if “you are allowed to say what you want, what you think, and not be afraid of being persecuted for it. In other words, to express your free opinion.”

Freedom of religion is another theme some respondents raise. In the UK, one woman said, “It’s very important that democracy takes into consideration all communities. There should be no religious bigotry and people should not be treated differently because of their religious beliefs. They should be able to practice their religion freely.”

Combatting inequality between races, genders and more

“When ‘hijab’ no longer means ‘terrorist.’”

Woman, 29, Israel

A central theme related to individual rights and equality is to correct injustices – across race, gender, class, immigration status or other divides in society. Sometimes respondents specified many dimensions at once: “All citizens should have an equal say and be treated as well as one another, regardless of color, where they were born or their religion,” said an Australian woman. Similarly, an Indian woman said, “Treat everyone the same, avoid caste, religion and communalism.”

  • In India, one key dimension discussed is caste discrimination – as in, “Caste discrimination should change in hospitals, schools and banks.” Another respondent said, “Caste politics should go.”
  • In Kenya, the emphasis is heavily on tribal inequities and “fighting tribalism.
  • In Australia, one respondent said: “More needs to be done to reduce inequalities which seem to be widening, not only in Australia but across the world. Aboriginal people have been s–t on for centuries and an awful lot needs to be done to reduce the inequalities in wealth and opportunity for Aboriginal Australians.” (The survey was conducted amid discussion about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament initiative, which was later rejected in an October referendum.)
  • In Canada, some stressed the importance of “making good on our promises to the First Nation people, accepting their status.”
  • Some Americans highlighted “systemic racism” in general, while others discussed “giving people of color similar advantages to White America,” “giving Black Americans restitution” and reparations for Native Americans.
  • Some South Africans addressed the legacy of apartheid, noting that the country should “not go back to racism.” Others said there was a need to “empower Black people” or for “White people to give back everything they stole from Black people.”
  • Israelis mentioned “giving Arabs civil rights like those of the Jewish community” and “making Arab voices heard. They also proposed specific solutions, including “repealing the nationalism law so we can feel that we are all citizens in the state,” “fair employment of Arab minorities in state institutions,” and “granting us the right to visit our relatives in the West Bank and for them to enter Israel and visit us.”

Gender equality is also a focus. “Take women into account, both in employment and in their opinions, since the word of a man is more important to the government than that of a woman,” said one woman in Mexico. In India, some of the emphasis is on women’s safety: “Women should be able to walk on the road without fear.” In Sweden, respondents call for equal salaries for men and women and for more women in leading positions.

At times, regional equality is a salient issue. For instance, in Germany, people want “more equality between East and West,” and in Italy, a respondent said there should be steps taken to “not deepen the gap between North and South.” Others mention disparities between urban and rural areas.

“Teaching that freedom is not judging others for their sexual orientation or beliefs and also not imposing your beliefs on others. This would truly help democracy.”

Man, 45, U.S.

Immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights also come up. The former was brought up by a Spanish man: “We need to generate equal health, education and social services for all living people, whether they are Spanish or not. Equality for all people.” In the case of the latter, an American asked for “no discrimination against LGBTQIA,” and a Brazilian said, “Respect for the opinion of others and their sexual orientation.”

Avoiding ‘special treatment’

Respondents sometimes express strong concerns that correcting for inequities has gone too far, creating its own form of injustice. In many instances, these calls are in direct contrast with those discussed above. To give three examples:

  • One Canadian noted, “I think if some people wouldn’t get special treatment or special status, everyone would be equal. I would not like to see First Nation people get special status.”
  • In Australia, a respondent said, “We should remove the divisive approach to Indigenous peoples. There is no need for reconciliation; we are all reconciled to live together. Indigenous people have evolved and are now primarily equal to any other Australian. In fact, non-Indigenous do not receive extra benefits, which is reverse racism. If the Indigenous people choose to live like a Westerner, they should be equal to the rest of us – no extras. This would reduce the resentment and resistance many feel today.”
  • An American said, “Stop favoring races and treat all the same. Stop favoring sexual orientation and making a big deal over it.”

Similarly, some are concerned that focus on minority issues or questions of tolerance has led to a suppression of free speech: “I think, at the moment, the voice of the minority is superseding that of the majority, and you’re not allowed to say this is wrong,” said a Canadian woman. One British woman summarized this position saying, “You should be able to say what you want without being politically correct, and people should be able to express their opinions.” An Australian woman said, “Democracy in Australia used to be great, but it has declined over recent years. One of the best ways of improving it again is to allow all free speech, even if people get offended by it. There is nowadays too much gagging of free speech.”

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