Pippa Norris on Democratic Societies

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on Dec. 2, 2010

Democratic systems of government differ from nation to nation, and most often evolve over time. How they differ and how their evolution is affected by important influences is the focus of Pippa Norris’ research and writing. Norris is the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, and is the author of multiple books, book chapters, and journal articles focusing on democracy and development, public opinion and elections, political communications, and gender politics.

Q: Is there currently a crisis in democratic governance?

Norris: If you look at the indicators, what you quickly find is that far from moving forward in terms of democratic governance, the world seems to be moving either into stagnation or retreat. For example, in the past four years the Freedom House indicators show that the number of countries that are becoming more democratic is actually decreasing. So it seems that, just as Sam Huntington said years ago – democracy has periods of advancement and retreat – and it might be that we’re into something like a democratic recession. It’s a real problem.

Q: How would confidence in democratic governance in the United States rate as compared with confidence in other countries?

Norris: When you compare attitudes in Europe and the United States for example, you find a systematic difference. In Scandinavian and Northern European countries, like Germany, you always find quite strong confidence in the state. The state is seen as an effective provider of public services and regulator of the economy to a much greater extent than elsewhere.

In many other countries one finds far less confidence in the government and it’s a persistent pattern. Americans, for example, are much more skeptical – always have been – toward their government. In other countries – classically in Italy for example – one also finds that there is very little confidence in how the Parliament works, how the Prime Minister works, and how well the legal system and the courts function as well. So we have some longstanding cultural patterns in how people see government and in how much trust they have in government.

Q: In your latest book, “Democratic Deficit,” you examine the assumption that democracies are suffering from a legitimacy crisis. Explain your analysis.

Norris: Culture can play a critical role in affecting how citizens perceive their government. In America we’re always hearing that voters are angry – people are dissatisfied with Congress; they don’t like the way the system works, hence the ascension of the Tea Party. My book is a study that takes a fresh, worldwide look at this issue, and it asks – do people still feel confidence in their institutions and in their government? Do they feel patriotic? How strongly do they feel they actually support their country?

What I’m finding is that some of the conventional wisdom often discussed in the media is actually not true. For example, if you look at the American data, long term trends show that in a general sense confidence is volatile. It goes up and it goes down. So it can recover during certain periods, during the early 90s for example and under President Reagan, and at other periods it can go down. So it’s not an inexorable decline.

As you look around the world, the key issue is that a growing number of global citizens now have real aspirations toward democratic governance. In all sorts of countries where you might not expect it, when you ask “what is the best form of governance” people say "democracy." On the other hand, when you say, “and how democratically is your own country being governed?” there is a big gap. So this democratic deficit is the heart of the new book.

This study actually builds on work that the Kennedy School initiated under former Dean Joseph Nye, called the Visions of Governance Project. Ten years ago we produced another book called “Critical Citizens,” and it was really time to update this work, to look at the trends afresh, and to think about new explanations for this phenomenon as well, building on the work we’ve done at the school over many years.

Q: What do the findings of your analysis say about the dynamics of the democratization process?

Norris: What we find is that in established democracies, we’ve seen a marked increase in the numbers of critical citizens or citizens who really have high aspirations for democracy but who aren’t satisfied with the way in which their government is performing in democratic areas. In other countries what we find is that although many citizens say that democracy is their ideal model for government they don’t necessarily trust the way it works. So there’s a real crisis there as to how people feel democracy is delivering and is actually giving them things like jobs, clean water and housing – all those critical benefits that effective governments can help ensure.

Q: You have also written extensively on the role that the media plays in democratic societies. How is that role changing, particularly in respect to the emergence of the Internet as a powerful source of information and influence?

Norris: A previous book that we wrote for the World Bank explored this topic in some depth. We brought together experts at a conference and we had three goals – one was to analyze the media’s role as a watchdog – to keep a critical eye on governments and controversial government policies. And we see some current examples like the WikiLeaks case, in which watchdogs have taken their role to a new level. Nevertheless, in many countries the argument is that you have to allow room for investigative journalism.

Secondly, we discuss the media’s role as a platform for various viewpoints. It really has to allow the space for different perspectives on critical public issues. In some countries, like Russia for example, in recent elections what you find is that the media gives a tremendous boost to the government and its positions, but fails to give minor parties, opposition voices, enough of a say, and that seems even more draconian in countries like Burma in which clearly the repression of the media has been extreme.

And then lastly, the media also needs to provide a kind of civic forum to ensure that different social groups – women, minorities, etc. – are represented. So we ask are minorities and women represented in television, in newspapers, as well as in new media? And we have looked in many countries around the world and we find that many initiatives are going on to try to strengthen the media in those three roles – by many different NGOs, multi-lateral bodies, as well as governments, as well as civic society associations.

So while this is a big area of developmental initiatives, we still have a long way to go, particularly in countries that are finding new ways to repress the media. We used to have government censors, state censors, looking at editors and newspapers, but nowadays we increasingly find in countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, that there are very subtle devices being utilized by repressive regimes to control even new media sources like the internet and social networking.

Another clear example of this is most recently in China, where an activist who was Tweeting a joke to a colleague has now been imprisoned for a year just on that basis. So new media is an enormous advancement and should provide new avenues for media freedom and independent communication, but it suffers from many of the same challenges as the old media does – like in the case of television news outlets that are owned by the state or are in the hands of a few oligarchs, or in the case of newspapers, in which their journalists are still very restricted. So there are real challenges as to how we can actually improve media to meet ideal goals.

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