Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

What Can Improve Democracy?

2. Government reform, special interests and the media

Though political systems vary across the 24 countries surveyed,1 citizens in each call for similarly broad changes to government rules and norms. In most countries surveyed, government reform – including calls for transparency, term limits and adjusting the balance of power between institutions or across levels of government – are in the top three most referenced changes. While many themes cross borders, there are some very specific proposals mentioned in each country to adjust the governmental system, such as abolishing the House of Lords in the UK or establishing a Sixth Republic in France.

The need to curb the influence of special interests and combat corruption ranks in the top half of the 17 substantive topics coded, with people broadly calling to limit the financial benefits given to career politicians, control the influence of special interest groups and deal with outright corruption. Still, country specific complaints emerge, such as the influence of super PACs in the U.S. or the amakudari system in Japan.

Media reform is mentioned less frequently in most places. But in Hungary, Australia, South Korea, the U.S. and Sweden, changing the media is one of the top 10 coded topics, with complaints centering on issues like the need for a free, independent and unbiased press.

Government reform

A table showing that Calls for government reform are common relative to other changes in most countries surveyed

In most of the countries surveyed, government reform is frequently mentioned as means to improve democracy. In half of the 24 countries surveyed, government reform ranks among the top three improvements for democracy. In most of the rest, it is a top-five issue.

Notably, in the U.S., calls for system-level reform were more common than any other response, tied with politicians. (For more on views of politicians, read Chapter 1.)

The reforms suggested address a breadth of issues. One common refrain is the concept of transparency: legislative transparency, budget transparency, decision-making transparency and so on. In fact, the words “transparency” or “transparent” were used by respondents in countries spanning all global regions and income levels in the survey. Other ideas that are emphasized include “honesty,” “efficiency,” “less bureaucracy” and “good governance.”

In a variety of countries, people identify general constitutional reform as the key to improving democracy. One Argentine called for the “Constitution to be modified,” and a man in France said his country needs to “change the Constitution put in place by General de Gaulle. It no longer fits.” In Israel and the UK, two of only a few countries globally without codified constitutions, several people suggested creating one.

“The best way to improve democracy is to restructure Nigeria and decentralize power. All the arms of government should be independent and local government autonomy should be upheld.”

Man, 44, Nigeria

In a few cases, people want to wholly “change the political system,” but keep democracy. For instance, an Australian respondent said, “Become a republic.” And a Canadian said she wants to “remove the monarchy” because she “definitely doesn’t want King Charles to be the head of Canada.”

But where some seek broad, general changes, others drill down on specific reforms they would like to see in their democracies. These largely fall into two categories related to the structure of government: the balance of power – between the branches and levels of government as well as regions of the country – and term limits for elected officials.

While these themes are dominant, they are not totally exhaustive of the types of “political reengineering” respondents suggest. In several countries with parliamentary systems, there are calls for fewer seats in the legislature or even calls to eliminate pieces of the legislature altogether:

“Remove the House of Commons.”

– Man, 31, Canada

“We don’t need so many politicians and parties to make democracy work.”

– Man, 76, Germany

“Reduce the number of politicians.”

– Woman, 46, Japan

“Get rid of the House of Lords and stop electing people to be Lords because it’s stupid.”

– Man, 72, UK

In some countries, references to government reform are more common among men than women. And ideological differences exist in a few places, but their direction depends on the type of change being called for. For example, Israelis who place themselves on the ideological left are more likely than those on the right to make general calls for government reform, but less likely to request changes to the balance of power in government.

Correcting the balance of power

In each country surveyed, there are branches of government that are meant to have responsibilities independent of one another. Many respondents who mention balance of power want to see their governments better respect this distribution. One Spanish man said democracy would improve with “the division of powers and effective respect among the three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.”

“Elected members of Congress need to reassert their authority over their own turf and not allow executive orders, unelected bureaucrats and the judicial branch to usurp the official duty of controlling the purse strings.”

Man, 75, U.S.

But some want to fundamentally change which branch gets certain powers, or power in general. In many cases, people want to see less power reside in the executive branch. A Canadian woman called for “a little less power in the prime minister’s office and more in the actual Parliament.” And a woman in Hungary suggested that “the head of government shouldn’t make decisions on his own.” One 54-year-old man in Kenya went so far to suggest that his country add “a prime minister in government so that power can be shared.”

Several French respondents mentioned a Sixth Republic, a sentiment made popular after President Emmanuel Macron raised the national retirement age without parliamentary approval. The suggested Sixth Republic, as opposed to the current Fifth Republic, would possibly mark an era of limited power in the French presidency.

Appeals for checks on power in South Korea are unique. There are many mentions of “prosecutors staying out of politics,” “weakening the prosecutors’ power,” and ending the “prosecution kingdom” or “prosecution’s dictatorship” in a country that had, just one year prior, elected a former prosecutor general to the presidency.

And Israelis stand out for several calls to give the executive branch more power. An Israeli woman suggested democracy would be better if “the prime minister had more extensive powers.” One 47-year-old man wanted “to give the prime minister more power and independence and not take into account the opinion of the attorney general.” (For more on Israeli views of judicial system reform, read Chapter 6.)

Balancing power between levels of government

“If we’re starting with a clean slate, we would endeavor to have only two levels of government: a large regional government and a federal government. States are an historic anachronism based on colonialism.”

Man, 70, Australia

Some respondents want their country to shift the balance of power between levels of government. In Australia, for example, there are requests to do away with state-level governments and move forward with regional and federal administrations only. Meanwhile, in Japan, some propose adding a regional level of government by introducing “a system of provinces” to “deliver the voice of the people to the Diet.”

In the U.S., there are also plenty of calls to “give states back their power and decentralize government.” One American man wanted “to reduce federal government and allow states to rule themselves.”

Balancing power between regions

In some instances, the concern over balancing power in the government has to do with regional or geographic fairness. In many places, these reforms are unique to the way a country defines regions and allots representation.

Take Nigeria as an example, where there is a geopolitical zoning system that divides the country into six regions. In general, power is shared between the North and the South, but one man suggested that “power should be shared among the six zones.” Others call for rotating government leadership among the six zones.

In the U.S., some believe modifying the way that congressional representation is divided among the states will improve democracy. One American man wanted to “expand the number of representatives in the House to give more populated states a better presence.” Airing similar dissatisfaction, a woman said, “There is too much power being given to rural people who have an outsized voice in our democracy because each state gets two senators no matter the size.”

In other countries, there is concern that people in rural areas do not have enough power or representation compared with those in urban areas and major cities. One Dutch man suggested there should be “more representatives from the countryside, instead of only from the Randstad.” One Australian woman said, “Listen to rural Australia more,” and a Canadian man wanted “better representation of rural Canada.”

There are also country-specific calls for more independence or autonomous power in certain regions like Quebec in Canada, Scotland in the UK and Catalonia in Spain. A few Americans advocate statehood for Washington, D.C., and territories like Puerto Rico.

Term limits for elected officials

Some say their democracy would improve if there were additional, or new, limits on a politician’s time in office. In fact, mentions of term limits appear in more than half of all responses coded as government reform in the U.S., a much larger share than any other country surveyed.

“We need to limit the number of years politicians can serve. No one should be able to serve as a politician for 40+ years, like Joe Biden. I don’t have anything against him. I just think that we need limits.”

Woman, 43, U.S.

Suggestions vary depending on the country and the elected position in question. Some call for shorter terms between elections for any elected official (Elected positions in the democracies surveyed often have some limit on the number of years a person can hold office without facing reelection.) Many responses calling for term limits are also concerned with the number of times someone can enter that reelection process.

An Australian man wanted to “only have the prime minister in office for two terms.” And one American man suggested “limiting the number of consecutive terms senators and representatives can serve.” (Currently, the Australian premier can hold office in perpetuity if they maintain government support, and American lawmakers can be reelected indefinitely.)

For other respondents, the introduction of shorter or fewer terms includes an age limit for public office. A Canadian man said simply, “There should be an age limit on politicians.”

The idea of an age limit is notably common in Japan, though there is no consensus on what the retirement age for politicians should be. One Japanese woman said, “Diet members should retire at 65,” while another suggested “setting the retirement age for lawmakers to 70.” Regardless, there is a push to use this sort of reform to get younger voices in the government of one of the world’s fastest-aging societies. (For more on the inclusion of young and otherwise diverse voices in government, read Chapter 1.)

Special interests

A table showing that Some say addressing the influence of special interests would improve their democracy

“I want politicians to not be dazzled by money, but to look at the future of Japan and do their jobs properly.”

Man, 71, Japan

In each country surveyed, people want to change – or eliminate – the role money plays in their political systems. Concern lies with three central topics: the financial benefits of a career in politics, the influence of special interest groups and outright corruption.

The emphasis placed on these issues varies substantially relative to other factors commonly mentioned in responses. In Mexico, the U.S. and Australia, references to special interests rank in the top three topics cited when asked how to improve democracy. In most other countries this issue is in the top half of the 17 substantive topics coded.

In a few places – Canada, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain – non-supporters of the party or parties in power at the time of the survey are more likely to mention the role of special interests than those who do support the governing party. (For more information on how we classify governing party supporters, refer to Appendix D.) The opposite is true in the U.S., where Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents take issue with the role of money in American politics more than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Politicians’ salary, benefits and career

Many people who mention special interests are concerned about politicians reaping financial benefits during and after their time in office. People commonly call on their governments to “lower the salaries of parliamentarians and politicians” or “reduce benefits for holding public office.” One British woman said, “I think they should take a pay cut and put that back into running the country.”

A specific suggestion seen in several countries is for politicians to receive “base salaries” or pay that is “in keeping with the lower-middle class.”

“Media should take the money out of politics and let people vote. No lobbying. No bonus or pay day when politicians leave office. There is too much incentive for politicians to focus on special interests instead of what citizens want.”

Man, 41, Canada

Political pensions are another issue. One British woman pointed out that former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ unprecedently short stint in office earned her a lifetime salary. A man in Spain called for “lifetime payments” and “bonuses and allowances” for parliamentarians to be cut altogether.

In some places, people see space to improve democracy by restricting politicians from holding other jobs or affiliations during and after their time in office. A 52-year-old Dutch man said, “People with side jobs don’t belong in politics.” And a British woman suggested, “If we had MPs who didn’t have second jobs, they could focus on the job they’re supposed to be doing in Parliament.”

As for careers after time in government, one man in Japan called for “amakudari illegalization.” (Amakudari is the practice of giving private-sector positions to retired senior-level politicians.) And one American suggested a “five-year prohibition on working for companies whose sector they previously regulated.”

In a few countries, there is frustration with nepotism in government. As a woman in Indonesia said, “Don’t support someone just because they are the children of some politician.” This sense that people should not leverage their family’s position and power to advance their own political career also exists in Japan, where one man said, “I want hereditary people to quit,” and in South Africa, where a woman said politicians “must not only employ family members.”

The role of lobbying

Concerns related to money and politics extend beyond politicians’ income and career prospects. In many countries – mostly advanced economies – people share concerns about the power and practices of special interest groups. This includes lobbying and the ways that political parties and organizations fundraise.

“Ban donations from tobacco, gambling and property developers. Don’t provide funding based on votes for political parties, it makes it impossible for independents to campaign and entrenches major parties.”

Woman, 50, Australia

Plenty of people say that “getting rid of” or “forbidding” lobbying would improve the way democracy is functioning in their country. An American man went so far as to suggest “taking all the lobbyists and putting them on a boat to the Bermuda Triangle.” Others do not call for an outright ban but suggest limits on lobbying and better monitoring of political donations.

For some, limits and transparency are most important when related to elections and campaign advertising. This is especially common in the United States, where campaign finance reform is often identified as a way to improve democracy. In a similar vein, Citizens United came under fire from multiple respondents dissatisfied with the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited corporate and PAC spending on elections.

Corruption and bribery

In many countries surveyed, people see eliminating corruption – an abuse of power for financial gain – as the key to improving their democracy. As one young Nigerian man said: “All we need are good, uncorrupt leaders.”

“An end to the f—king corruption.”

Man, 56, Mexico

In fact, if all other types of special interests mentioned were ignored, corruption would still stand as one of the top five things mentioned in Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia. On balance, corruption is more commonly cited as a problem in the middle-income countries surveyed (Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa), while general special interests are more commonly mentioned in high-income countries.

Some mention crimes like theft, fraud and bribery. One American man said democracy would be improved by “ferreting out politicians, bureaucrats and activists who are willing to lie, cheat and steal to gain power.” Though people more frequently make simple and broad-reaching calls to address corruption:

“Fight against corruption.”

– Woman, 67, Hungary

“Let there be less corruption.”

– Woman, 53, Argentina

“Corruption must be finished.”

– Man, 22, India

“Be free of corruption.”

– Woman, 62, Kenya

(For more on how people want to deal with politicians and parties who are found to be corrupt, read Chapter 6.)

Media reform

A table showing that In most countries surveyed, media reform is a relatively uncommon proposal to improve democracy

“The media must be much broader than today. It is important to write from all perspectives, otherwise there is a risk of losing democracy through misinformation.”

Woman, 71, Sweden

“The news media should have to report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, not their version of the news.”

Woman, 79, U.S.

For a few people, media reform is key to improving democracy in their country. In five places – Hungary, Australia, South Korea, the U.S. and Sweden – changing the media is in the top 10 issues of the 17 coded.

Accurate and unbiased information

Many people who mention media reform are concerned with the availability of factual, unbiased information. An Australian man called for “more truth in the media. Actual news about what is going on in the world would be good. All we seem to get is lies and spin.” In Italy, one man said democracy would improve “if the Italian press was more truthful! No fake news.” Britons, Poles, Hungarians, Canadians and Swedes share similar frustrations with the content they get from the media.

Several people note that accurate reporting by the media is crucial for their ability to make informed decisions in their everyday life. One Swede explained: “Information that I, as a citizen, receive through newspapers and TV is not sufficiently factual. When you judge, for example, a debate based on rhetoric instead of facts, I think you are out of line. If I don’t get the right information, democracy cannot work. I cannot make my choice based on factual information if I do not receive it.” (For more on how people view citizens’ responsibilities, read Chapter 4.)

In the push for truthfulness, some people are concerned with the political bias of major news sources. One man in Japan wanted “the media to be neutral in its reporting,” and an Australian said that “the media should seek to be impartial.” An Israeli woman suggested “that the media should stop behaving like a political party in and of itself and supporting a certain side instead of doing its job.”

“A more plural communication media. I believe that in the media there is a lot of fake news and a right-wing monopoly. There is a lack of pluralism and truth, a lot of toxicity and many campaigns that do not correspond to the reality we live in.”

Man, 53, Spain

In the U.S. there are calls to “get rid of Fox ‘News’,” on one side and on the other to “report on many things they presently seem to be covering up, such as the president’s son’s laptop.” Meanwhile, other Americans want a “less polarizing media” altogether. A young woman said “the media is bent on villainizing any platform that disagrees with its agenda de jour.”

A free and independent press

Beyond concerns about accuracy and bias, there are also issues with media ownership and government interference. “A strong and independent news media” – void of interference from the government and special interests – is a tenet of democracy that respondents in several countries address.

For a few people, this means better “publicly funded news broadcasting.” One American man spelled out his suggestion: “I also have this crazy idea where I think there should be a much stronger, publicly funded media ecosystem that ensures higher-quality journalism and either outcompetes or purchases existing news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC.”

“Free, unbiased and uncompromised news media is crucial for a democracy to function well in the service of all citizens – not just a minority with the requisite wealth and influence. A very good start would be to remove or drastically curtail Rupert Murdoch’s malign impact on Australian social and political affairs.”

Man, 70, Australia

Others are concerned with private influence in the media industry. An Argentine woman said she wants to explicitly “avoid a media monopoly.” A man in the UK said, “We cannot have democracy and the Daily Mail. We need to stop billionaires who do not live in this country from influencing voters with false impressions of patriotism. Having a Union Jack on your box of eggs does not make you a patriot.” And in Australia, several respondents question the impact of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Censorship and social media

Though not dominant themes across countries, there are a few people who are concerned with social media, censorship and its impact on democracy.

One Brazilian woman clarified the importance of “having complete freedom to speak one’s mind on social media and not be banned or surveilled for it.” A woman in Japan thought that “experts should share opinions on TV, YouTube, etc.” And in India, a woman said democracy would improve through “internet, social media and education.”

On the other hand, some people think increased restrictions or censorship on social media would benefit their democracy. An American woman suggested, “Social media companies should monitor disinformation more.” A Swede said it would be beneficial to “shut down all social media during the election campaign.” And one 19-year-old woman in India went so far as to say that “social media should be banned.”

  1. The 24 countries surveyed include parliamentary republics, presidential republics, constitutional monarchies, federal republics and semi-presidential republics.

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