Democracy's Doldrums

February 21, 2012 Topic: DemocracyIdeologyPublic Opinion Region: South AsiaLibya Blog Brand: The Buzz

Democracy's Doldrums

Americans' insatiable appetite for polling data contrasts with a their approval of a primary pillar of democratic expression—Congress—now at an all-time low of 7 percent. President Obama, an executive empowered to make many unilateral decisions, clocks in at 41 percent.

There's a strange parallel with a recent poll taken in the Middle East—one that reveals that Americans' own doubts about democratic institutions may be shared by the very people to whom they are so desperate to export them.

In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Oxford researcher Sarmila Bose reports on a recent survey of post-Qaddafi Libya, which finds that "only 15 percent of those surveyed in Libya say they want democracy established in a year." This is compared with "40 percent who profess a preference for a 'strong leader'." It's "a bit of a let-down for Western cheerleaders of the upheavals in the Arab world," says Bose, who contends "that to express anything other than unquestioning devotion to [democracy] risks being taken to be political heresy."

The responses of Westerners cataloged by Bose reveal the arrogance of democratic missionaries. "One of the academics involved with the poll said that 'the survey suggested Libyans lacked the knowledge of how democracy works.'" But Bose will have none of it, insisting that the West take a good hard look at the people it would reshape in its own image: "Tortuous or seemingly patronizing explanations offered for the preferences revealed by the Libyans demonstrate our reluctance to confront the reality that many of 'the people'—not just in Libya but everywhere else—may not really want democracy or may have deeply ambivalent or conflicted attitudes towards democracy, despite its apparent triumph as a political system."

Bose notes that a survey of South Asia also reveals skepticism about democratic institutions. Across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, two-thirds preferred rule by a "strong leader who does not have to bother about elections." India, the outlier with 70 percent preferring democracy, stands in stark contrast to Pakistan, where 49 percent said they had no strong preference.

Bose's courage in pointing to an uncomfortable reality—democracy's low reputation outside the West—is notable.