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  • The Democracy Barometers (Part I)

One of the most important sources of data for assessing the quality and stability of democracy—its progress toward consolidation and deepening—is public opinion. To know whether democracy is becoming broadly legitimate in a society, the "only game in town," we cannot simply examine the values, motivations, and behavioral patterns of political elites and organizations, important though these are. We must also know what the people think.

Until the mid-1990s, however, there was precious little systematic information regarding the values and attitudes toward democracy of citizens in the new and restored democracies of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the postcommunist world. Beginning in the 1980s, the World Values Survey questioned people across a wide range of cultures about their basic attitudes and values, but initially these surveys addressed the question of regime preference and legitimacy only to a limited degree, and with scant coverage of the developing world. Other surveys explored in depth political attitudes and behaviors in the developed democracies, and then in individual new democracies.

Over the last decade, however, the field of democratic studies has been enriched by the emergence of a new generation of "democracy barometers." These public-opinion surveys ask the same questions of nationwide random samples in a number of different countries, usually within a single region. The barometers have given us revealing insights about the extent to which publics in different countries trust their political leaders and institutions, know the basics of their political system, identify with or feel alienated from their regime, understand the meaning of democracy, are satisfied with how democracy is doing in their country, and support democracy as a system of government, not just in the abstract but in contrast to specific authoritarian alternatives.

The Journal of Democracy has published roughly a dozen articles to date presenting some of the evidence from these democracy barometers of public opinion in every region of the world outside the West. Here, in the first of what will be two or three new clusters of articles, we present a distillation of analyses from recent surveys of East Asia (the Asian Barometer), Latin America (the AmericasBarometer), Africa (the Afrobarometer), and postcommunist Europe (the New Europe Barometer). In future issues we will publish articles reporting recent data from the Latinobarómetro, the South Asia Barometer, the new Arab Barometer, and the World Values Survey. All these new articles, together with a few earlier ones, will then be published in book form by Johns Hopkins University Press in August 2008 under the title How People View Democracy.



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