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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Popular Conceptions of the Meaning of Democracy: Democratic Understanding in Unlikely Places


This paper addresses the question of whether ordinary people express a reasonable understanding of the meaning of democracy, and what are the contents of their definitions? Do people focus on the procedural aspects of democracy—elections, democratic institutions, and processes—which are the main focus of democratization efforts. Alternatively, do they see democracy in terms of rights and liberties, or economic or social welfare terms? We draw on a wide range of recent public opinion surveys from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Our research yields three generalizations about popular conceptions of democracy. First, even in new democracies, most people can define democracy in their own words. Second, and most important, most people think of democracy in terms of the freedoms, liberties and rights that it conveys, rather than procedural conceptions of liberal democracy. Third, equating democracy with social benefits emerges as a minor theme, even in the poorest of nations. Our findings thus suggest that democratic aspirations are shaped by perceptions of the liberties and freedom that democracy can produce, and that are seen as lacking in other political systems.

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