In their introductory chapter, Osterberg-Kaufmann, Stark and Mohamad-Klotzbach (2020) present a useful dictionary of contested terms in researching lay notions of democracy and they locate the five contributions of this collection in the context of ongoing debates and challenges in the field. One of these debates, that between relativism and universalism, is most central in my eyes and I will come back to this issue further below. Two of the contributions (Baniamin 2020; Wegscheider and Stark 2020) are of an explanatory kind and use established survey methodology to study ordinary citizens’ notions of democracy, the differences therein and the broader implications of these. The other three contributions are of a more reconstructive type in trying to paint a nuanced picture of how ordinary people understand and think about democracy. Two of these works (Dahlberg et al. 2020; Osterberg-Kaufmann and Stadelmaier 2020) pursue a mixed-methods approach in that they analyze qualitative semantic data in novel ways with quantitative methods (“repertory grid”, “distributional semantics”). The third of these reconstructive studies (Frankenberger and Buhr 2020) is purely qualitative in character based on two sets of narrative interviews in Baden Wuerttemberg.
To begin with, Baniamin’s analysis starts from the puzzling observation that respondents in the Afrobarometer surveys often express satisfaction with democracy and consider their own country as quite democratic, when in fact it is not (due to scholarly standards applied in expert democracy ratings by Polity, Freedom House or V‑Dem). Baniamin shows convincingly that this paradox resolves itself when one divides respondents into “rights seekers” and “privilege seekers”: apparently, rights seekers apply more demanding standards of judgement and, hence, are less likely to be satisfied with their country’s state of democracy and also less likely to mistake their country for a democracy when it isn’t one. This insight is important, intuitively plausible and novel, although I wonder in how far “rights seekers” is just rephrasing older conceptions such as “critical citizens” (Norris 1999, 2011) “intrinsic democracy supporters” (Inglehart and Welzel 2005), “grounded democracy supporters” (Welzel 2013) or “assertive citizens” (Dalton and Welzel 2014)—to name just a few “democrats with adjectives” (Schedler and Sarsfield 2007).
Using World Values Surveys data, Wegscheider and Stark (2020) demonstrate that respondents with a more sophisticated knowledge about what democracy means tend to be more satisfied with democracy and rate their country’s state of democracy higher—yet this effect is conditional on a country’s actual level of democracy: democratic knowledge only improves people’s satisfaction with democracy in actual democracies. By implication, this means that democratic knowledge decreases people’s regime support in autocracies. Although this might seem trivial, it is not because this finding implies that knowledge about democracy embodies a tendency to like democracy, which would be a true Enlightenment effect, or as Cho (2014) put it: “to know democracy is to love it.” In intertwining this finding with that of Baniamin, one obvious question remains, however: how do “rights seeking” (Baniamin) and “democratic knowledge” (Wegscheider and Stark) map on each other and what’s the common ground, if it exists?
At any rate, I think that the findings of Baniamin and Wegscheider/Stark are rather substantial. And they both showcase the strengths of standardized surveys. This is significant to note because a common point of departure of the next three contributions is a rather fundamental criticism of survey research, which all three of them take as a justification to present alternative methods in analyzing lay perceptions of democracy. It is also interesting to note that all three of these reconstructive pieces go at much greater length to explain their method than at laying out substantive findings. This could give one a pause to think.
Dahlberg, Axelsson and Holmberg’s (2020) study is impressive already by the methodology just in and by itself. These authors analyze textual online data from news media and social media from all around the world in an attempt to map the semantic contexts in which the word “democracy” is used in different countries and languages. Many of the results are interesting from a descriptive point of view. For one, communitarian terms like “society,” “republic” or “justice” seem most commonly linked to the word democracy, while a semantic linkage to individualistic terms such as “rights,” “liberties” and “freedoms” seems to be a peculiarity of the “English West” and Northwestern Europe. In light of this insight, I would conclude that the idea of democracy as “liberal democracy” continues to be most firmly encultured in countries where the Protestant Reformation left an individualistic cultural legacy. Democracy as liberal democracy is, hence, by no means a cross-cultural universal, at least not in lay understandings. That would match the findings of Baniamin and Wegscheider/Stark.
Osterberg-Kaufmann and Stadelmaier (2020), for their part, present the innovative method of “repertory-grid” interviews among members of the Singaporean middle class. The authors demonstrate convincingly how one can distillate democratic meanings from the mindsets of non-Westerners. Singapore is chosen as an unusual case where people show a high level of satisfaction with democracy, despite the fact that the country is at best a half-democracy (echoing Baniamin’s point of departure with several African examples). An explanation of this mismatch between lay perceptions and scholarly assessments of democracy in the case of Singapore might indeed reside in the subjective meanings that Singaporean citizens attribute to the term democracy: while the association of democracy with “free elections” seems to be generalizable (and Singapore does have elections, albeit not an even playing field), “equal rights” and “civil liberties” loom less importantly as terms associated with democracy. This insight as well suggests that the understanding of democracy as “liberal” democracy might be a singularity of the Protestant West. In my eyes, this insight supports the idea of “regime-culture congruence”: lay persons tend to understand democracy as whatever their regime offers them as such?
Finally, Frankenberger and Buhr’s (2020) point of departure is a stark criticism of standardized surveys and their alleged incapacity to uncover meanings of democracy as they really exist in people’s minds. From this criticism, the authors conclude that it needs qualitative interviews to reconstruct lay perceptions of democracy in psychological authenticity. Based on two sets of qualitative interviews in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Frankenberger and Buhr then succeed in demonstrating that lay people’s conceptions of democracy are indeed more complex than standard surveys are able to show. This study brings home this point persuasively, but not much more: it does not become obvious where the added explanatory value is in showing that the world is somewhat more complex than scientific models assume. In my eyes, the question to be addressed to quantitative survey research is not whether it reconstructs reality in perfect authenticity but whether it models reality in sufficient adequacy to generate explanatory/predictive value. As far as I see it, the contributions of Baniamin and Wegscheider/Stark are convincing in answering this question affirmatively.