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Support for democracy in the Americas remains low, opening door for politicians with undemocratic plans, Vanderbilt survey finds

A simmering discontent with democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean is creating opportunities for politicians with undemocratic plans, according to a comprehensive survey released Nov. 29 by Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP Lab.

The study, which involved interviews with more than 41,000 people in 26 countries, found that citizens in South America, Central America and the Caribbean show low confidence in their political institutions and leaders, pessimism about national economies and unease over rising food insecurity. These attitudes have persisted at a concerning level for about a decade and are conducive to increasingly unstable democracies, the report found.

Elizabeth Zechmeister
Elizabeth Zechmeister
(Vanderbilt University)

“The region is in a democratic funk,” said Elizabeth Zechmeister, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science, director of the LAPOP Lab and an author of the report. “That’s concerning because simmering discontent with the status quo can open up opportunities for political entrepreneurs to capitalize on that discontent. The crucial question is whether the contemporary wave of office seekers will be committed to strengthening democracy or will instead speak and act in ways that undermine it.”

The LAPOP Lab has conducted this ambitious public opinion survey approximately every two years since 2004. Known as the AmericasBarometer project, the survey asks hundreds of questions that measure attitudes, experiences and behaviors related to democracy in the Americas. Vanderbilt researchers presented the results from the latest survey on Nov. 29 at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The new study found that only 59 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean say democracy is the best form of government. That’s about 10 percentage points lower than a decade ago. Support for democracy had been holding steady at about 68 percent from 2004 to 2014, but by 2016 it dropped dramatically to 58 percent and has never recovered, the AmericasBarometer data show. Attitudes toward democracy have eroded most severely in Argentina, Colombia, Jamaica and Suriname.

A major factor contributing to the disillusionment with democracy is the public’s widespread skepticism about the integrity of political institutions and officials. About two-thirds of people in the region say they don’t trust their country’s legislature, courts and president or prime minister, according to the survey. Most strikingly, trust in the executive branch of government has declined 15 percentage points since its peak in 2010.

Unequal access to food and other necessities also significantly erodes attitudes toward democracy. Food insecurity has increased over the past decade in nearly every Latin American and Caribbean country. About one in three adults say that their household recently ran out of food. And pessimism about national economic conditions in the region is at an all-time high, according to the report.

These factors lead to discontent and a desire for change. Overall, attitudes that are conducive to a stable democracy have declined while attitudes that can lead to unstable democracies and authoritarian tendencies have increased since the start of the AmericasBarometer series.

“People’s support for democracy is not unconditional,” Zechmeister said. “If democratic institutions lack integrity and don’t provide a minimum standard of living, people are going to wonder whether there may be alternative ways of governing that would address these systemic challenges.”

Tolerance for politicians who break the law is already high in the region. About 41 percent of adults in Latin America and the Caribbean say that it is justifiable for politicians to act outside the law to deliver on promises to the people. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele’s approval rating is very high—78 percent of people surveyed in El Salvador expressed trust in their president—despite actions he has taken to infringe on the rule of law, including ignoring court rulings and permitting arbitrary detentions and other rights violations, the report notes.

Noam Lupu (Vanderbilt University)
Noam Lupu
(Vanderbilt University)

Despite the discouraging data, the report gives reason for optimism. Younger adults in Latin America and the Caribbean are more committed to democracy than previous generations when they were young, the researchers found.

That point isn’t always clear in public opinion surveys in the region, said Noam Lupu, associate director of the LAPOP Lab. Younger citizens are consistently more critical of democracy than older citizens in such surveys, and “this leads people to interpret that there’s something wrong with youth in Latin America today,” Lupu said. “But when you compare 18-year-olds today to 18-year-olds two decades ago, it turns out that they are actually more committed to democracy than the previous generation.”

The AmericasBarometer 2023 report is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Vanderbilt University. USAID and other government agencies use the data from the survey to understand the dynamics of democracy and anticipate emigration patterns. Latin American leaders also have used the survey to support their decision-making. For example, the data were used by Peruvian officials to propose election reform, by a Guyanese president to design sweeping police reform, and by moderators posing questions about corruption to presidential candidates in a televised debate in Ecuador.

Key findings: Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Support for democracy in LAC countries dropped a decade ago and has not yet recovered.
  • Support for democracy is highest in Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile and lowest in Honduras, Suriname and Guatemala.
  • Decreases in support for democracy have been most severe in Argentina, Colombia, Jamaica and Suriname.
  • Trust in the three main branches of government is low in LAC, and confidence in elections has declined.
  • Citizens’ trust in the military and churches is higher than their trust in police, elections, high courts, presidents and legislatures.
  • The number of citizens in LAC intending to emigrate has been increasing since 2012, but it decreased slightly since the survey taken two years ago during the pandemic.
  • Good governance and equitable distribution of wealth lead to greater demand for democracy and an interest in staying in place.

Additional findings: Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Younger people are more critical of democracy compared with older people; however, younger people today are more committed to democracy than the previous generation when they were young.
  • Intention to emigrate has increased significantly in Nicaragua since 2018.
  • Trust in presidents and prime ministers has dropped dramatically since 2010.
  • Food insecurity has increased in nearly every LAC country over the past decade, and it is strikingly high in Haiti.
  • Pessimism about national economic conditions is at an all-time high.
  • Concerns about free speech have increased in many LAC countries, particularly in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where about 90 percent of government critics—a near consensus—say there is very little freedom for those with negative views of the president.
  • Approval for same-sex marriage has steadily increased since 2010 across the LAC region.
  • Approval for same-sex marriage and for equal rights of gender minorities is highest in Uruguay and Argentina.

About LAPOP and the AmericasBarometer project

The LAPOP Lab at Vanderbilt University is the premier academic institution carrying out surveys of public opinion in the Americas. The AmericasBarometer project is the largest scientifically rigorous comparative survey in the region and has been conducted nearly every two years since 2004. The project is generously supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Vanderbilt University.