Public Opinion, Democracy, and the Economy: Case Studies from the Southern Cone

By Jacob R. Elsen
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 3/3 |


The results of this study, while not entirely comprehensive given the limited statistical scope of the methods used and a limited, sub-regional sample, do shed a great deal of light on various findings and hypotheses related to public opinion, democracy, and economic conditions. As noted previously, there is discord in the literature regarding to what extent democracy is related to economic development, with some studies finding a positive relationship, and others not. This study finds that overt support for democracy was, overall, weakly associated with evaluations of national and personal economic conditions.

Additionally, the three variables used to measure overt support showed a great amount of variance, both among themselves and among the four countries surveyed. This finding corroborates Inglehart and Welzel’s findings that overt support for democracy is not a good indicator for actual support due to the previously mentioned “lip service” to democracy effect. That is, assuming that an individual’s perceptions of current economic conditions will influence their support for democracy, then the overt support variables should demonstrate a consistently strong, positive relationship with their evaluations of the economy. However, the lack of such a relationship here, as demonstrated by the low gamma coefficients and their respective crosstabulations (not included here), indicates that individuals were likely to show overt support for democracy regardless of how they evaluated the economy.

At the same time, this study does not find that the intrinsic support for democracy variables performed much better on average than the overt support variables. Individually, all except life satisfaction demonstrated either weak associations or statistically insignificant associations, and together (via the composite variable), generally only reduced prediction error by between 21 and 30 percent. The generally moderate association between life satisfaction and personal economic evaluations suggests that, assuming that life satisfaction is conducive to democratic culture and therefore democracy itself as Inglehart and Welzel and others claim, then the extent to which governments are able to increase their citizens’ wealth is likely to in turn increase their life satisfaction, and in turn strengthen democracy. However, no other intrinsic support variables showed this consistent, moderate association.

Another important finding of this study is that intrinsic support for democracy, particularly through the composite variable, was consistently more strongly associated with personal economic evaluations than with national economic evaluations. While these associations were still generally weak, this consistency may suggest (although this study cannot claim causal relationships but rather only associations) that self-expression values are slightly more influenced by how an individual views their own economic situation as opposed to how they view their nation’s economic situation.

Additionally, these results indirectly corroborate Lagos’ (2003) findings that Latin Americans are learning to distinguish between democracy as a system and specific democratically elected governments, given that it is the democratically elected governments, and not democracy as a system per se, that are responsible for current economic conditions, especially at the national level. That is, the lack of a strong association may suggest that not supporting a democratically elected government’s current handling of the economy does not connote one not supporting democracy as a system. Looked at in this way, the lack of a strong association may be indicative of democratic consolidation. The reason for a lack of association between overt support for democracy and economic evaluations is, of course, ambiguous because it may very well be due to the previously mentioned “lip service” to democracy effect. However, the lack of a strong association between the intrinsic support measures and the economic variables is much more promising, because it indicates that the existence of these self-expression values, an important component of democracy for political culture theorists, is largely independent from a country’s current economic performance. This lack of economy-based volatility is therefore promising for the consolidation of democracy in these countries. Future studies should examine this relationship across time in order to assess whether this finding remains consistent.

As mentioned previously, Paraguay was included in this study in order to provide a comparative perspective, given that it does not have the high level of economic development, human development, and democratic development that characterizes the other three Southern Cone countries. While these variables were not controlled for in this study, cognizance of this difference in examining the results of these analyses may at the very least suggest whether or not these factors could influence any differences in Paraguay’s results. One significant difference is apparent. Paraguay’s results for the composite self-expression variable were lower than those for all other countries, particularly its association with national economic evaluations. For example, the introduction of the composite variable only reduced prediction error of national economic evaluations by 9.5%, compared to Chile’s error reduction of 27.5%. While both are weak, the variable’s error reduction in Paraguay was roughly 2.5 to 3 times less than that of the other countries.

While this study cannot explain why this disparity exists from a statistical or quantitative perspective, this question may be answered by revisiting the modernization theory literature. As Inglehart and Welzel (2006) note, insofar as economic development brings about rising levels of self-expression values, the result will lead to greater demands for democracy due to economic development’s tendency to shift societal values from those emphasizing basic survival, to those emphasizing self-expression.

Therefore this disparity may reflect the fact that Paraguay’s lower level of economic development has not allowed these self-expression values to permeate, and instead individuals remain more focused on survival values as opposed to the self-expression values more commonly seen in developed countries. It therefore may be more probable that evaluations of economic conditions in Paraguay would be more strongly associated with survival-oriented values (for example, access to food, clean water, housing, etc.) than self-expression values.

Because Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have attained much greater economic development than Paraguay, it would therefore expected that the degree to which self-expression values are associated with evaluations of the economy in these countries would be greater than in Paraguay.


The results of this study indicate that the variables measuring overt support for democracy were highly volatile, both when compared among themselves as well as when compared across the four countries sampled. The five intrinsic support for democracy variables also had substantial variations in degrees of association across all four countries, and most variables (overt and intrinsic) were only weakly associated with economic evaluations, with some (namely life satisfaction) demonstrating moderate levels of association. This study also finds that when aggregated together, the intrinsic support measures more consistently reduce error in predicting the independent variables than do the overt support measures, although their degree of association with the independent variables was overall not necessarily stronger.

This study has contributed to the political science literature in a number of ways. First, it has provided a unique methodological approach at assessing degrees of association between various indicators for overt and intrinsic support for democracy and evaluations of national and respondents’ personal economic conditions. While this bivariate analysis is not as comprehensive as the multivariate analyses conducted by other scholars on this and similar topics, it does provide an in-depth, variable-by-variable look at how measures of democratic support relate to economic conditions.

Additionally, the more recent data used in this study provides a useful point of comparison for studies utilizing data from previous years. Also, this study’s focus on the Southern Cone provides a new, in-depth look at a sub-region that is very distinct from Latin America as a whole in many ways and that has not received adequate attention in previous analyses dealing with this and similar topics. In this way, this study highlights the need for future research to supplement global and regional analyses employing aggregate data sources with sub-regional analyses and individual level survey data. Additionally, future research on the Southern Cone should examine the extent to which the relationships observed in this study remain consistent or change over time.


Allen, Leah. 2009. “Will a Bad Economy Hurt Democracy? Evidence from the AmericasBarometer Survey.” Inter-American Dialogue. (20 March 2012).

Carlin, Ryan E. 2006. “The Socioeconomic Roots of Support for Democracy and the Quality of Democracy in Latin America.” Revista de Ciencia Política 26: 48-66.

Chu, Yun-han, et al. 2008. “Public Opinion and Democratic Legitimacy.” Journal of Democracy 19: 74-87.

Claassen, Christopher and Robert Mattes. 2007. “Does Support for Democracy Matter? Regime Preference, Democracy, and Democratization.” Presented at the Midwest political science Association Annual Meeting.

Dalton, Russell. 1994. “Communists and Democrats: Democratic Attitudes in the Two Germanies.” British Journal of political science 24: 469-93.

Graham, Carol and Sandip Sukhtankar. 2004. “Does Economic Crisis Reduce Support for Markets and Democracy in Latin America? Some Evidence from Surveys of Public Opinion and Well Being.” Journal of Latin American Studies 36: 349-77.

Inglehart, Ronald and Christian Welzel. 2003. “Political Culture and Democracy: Analyzing Cross-Level Linkages.” Comparative Politics 36: 61-79.

Inglehart, Ronald and Christian Welzel. 2006. “Public Support for Democracy: A Core Component of Human Development.” Presented at the UNDP-LAPOP Workshop, Vanderbilt University.

Lagos, Marta. 2003. “Latin America’s Lost Illusions: A Road with No Return?” Journal of Democracy 14: 163-73.

Latinobarómetro 2009 Data File, Released October 2011. Latinobarómetro Corporation.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American political science Review 53: 69-105.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1960. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. New York: Doubleday.

Przeworski, Adam. 1991. Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siegelman, Lee. 2006. “Top Twenty Commentaries: The American political science Review Citation Classics.” American political science Review 100: 667-687.

Shyu, Huoyan. 2007. “Does Economic Performance Matter? Economic Evaluations and Support for Democracy in Seven Asian Countries.” Presented at the Asian Barometer’s International Conference “Why Asians Support Democracy and Why Not?”

Wucherpfennig, Julian and Franziska Deutsch. 2009. “Modernization and Democracy: Theories and Evidence Revisited.” Living Reviews in Democracy: 1-7.


1.) This was the most recent year for which data was available to the public gratuitously.

2.) Given that my study will focus on public perceptions of economic conditions as opposed to the much broader focus of economic development that is characteristic of modernization theory, I will not address this literature in depth here. See Wucherpfennig (2009) for a comprehensive summary of research developments in this arena.

3.) They define effective democracy as the extent to which elites respect the rule of law insofar as they do not violate the political and civil freedoms of citizens. Countries were scored based on their Freedom House index scores and their Corruption Index scores from Transparency International. For a detailed explanation of the creation of this composite index see Inglehart and Welzel (2003: 66-68).

4.) For a more detailed discussion of these studies, see Chu et al. (2008).

5.) While a time-series analysis would be an insightful means at examining the relationship that this study intends to measure, such an analysis is unfortunately not feasible for this sub-region given that the Latinobarómetro survey did not consistently ask many of the questions used in this study (particularly the intrinsic support variables) in all of these countries across various years. It is also for this reason that this study must rely on individual-level survey data, as opposed to survey data aggregated across countries and years. That is, the lack of consistent survey questions across country-years limits the amount of available cases for such an analysis, and would therefore present degrees of freedom issues.

6.) See Appendix II for a complete list of all of the survey questions employed in this analysis.

7.) See note 6.

8.) Inglehart and Welzel use tolerance of homosexuality because as a concept it is more stable and translates better across countries than do, for example, race and ethnicity, which are highly fluid and interpreted differently in different societies. It is for this same reason that I employ it here.

9.) This composite variable was created by dividing each case’s value on each variable by the highest value possible on each respective variable. These quotients (five in total for each case) were then added together, and this sum was multiplied by 4 in order to eliminate decimals. The result was a scale that ranged from a score of 6 (highest degree of self-expression values) to 20 (lowest degree of self expression values). These scores were then converted to a 3-tier ordinal ranking: (1) 6-10, (2) 11-15, (3) 16-20. Due to the need to eliminate cases that did not have values for one or more of the self-expression values questions for the construction of the composite variable, N for this variable is less than N for the other variables, and is as follows: Argentina (1158), Chile (1117), Paraguay (1131), Uruguay (1154), all countries (4560).

10.) The variables labeled overt support 1, 2, and 3 refer to the overt support for democracy questions in the order they appear in Appendix II.

11.) In this paper, “strong association” refers to gamma coefficients of 0.6 and above, “moderate association,” 0.3 to 0.6, and “weak association,” 0 to 0.3. The same classification scheme is used for negative coefficients.

12.) The coefficients for the overt support #3 variables are negative because this variable coded responses of “under no circumstances would support a military government” as 2, as opposed to the other overt support variables, where responses most favorable to democracy were coded as 1. Therefore the negative relationship is what one would expect; as support for a military government decreases, evaluations of economic conditions increases.



In general, how would you describe the present economic situation of the country? Would you say that it is:

  1. Very good
  2. Good
  3. About average
  4. Bad
  5. Very bad

In general, how would you describe your present economic situation and that of your family? Would you say that it is very good, good, about average, bad or very bad?

  1. Very good
  2. Good
  3. About average
  4. Bad
  5. Very bad


Which of the following statements do you agree with most? (Overt Support #1) 

  1. Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government
  2. Under some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one
  3. For people like me, it does not matter whether we have a democratic or a non-democratic regime

Do you strongly agree (1), agree (2), disagree (3) or strongly disagree (4) with the following statement: Democracy may have problems but it is the best system of government. (Overt Support #2)

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Agree
  3. Disagree
  4. Strongly disagree

Would you support a military government to replace the democratic government if the situation got very bad, or would you never support a military government under any circumstances? (Overt Support #3) 

  1. Would support a military government if the situation got very bad
  2. Under no circumstances would support a military government


A. Life Satisfaction

In general, would you say that you are satisfied with your life? Would you say that you are...

  1. Very satisfied
  2. Fairly satisfied
  3. Not very satisfied
  4. Not at all satisfied

B. Public Expression

Some people say that the way you vote can change the way things will be in the future. Others say that no matter how you vote, things will not improve in the future. Which statement is closest to your way of thinking?

  1. The way you vote can change the way things will be in the future
  2. No matter how you vote, things will not improve in the future

C. Tolerance of Diversity

In this list you will see various groups of people. Could you select any that you would not like to have as neighbors?

A. Homosexuals

  1. Not Mentioned
  2. Mentioned

D. Interpersonal Trust

Generally speaking, would you say that you can trust most people, or that you can never be too careful when dealing with others?

  1. You can trust most people
  2. You can never be too careful when dealing with others

E. Liberty and Participation

Do you strongly agree (1), agree (2), disagree (3) or strongly disagree (4) with the following statement: The media must be able to publish news without being afraid of being closed.

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Agree
  3. Disagree
  4. Strongly disagree

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

From 1954 to 1989, Paraguay was subject to the authoritarian regime of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. While Stroessner came to power at a time of great economic strife, it was the most prosperous time of his regime that led to his downfall – the construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric project on the Paraguay-Brazil border. While the project gave temporary prosperity to the country, its completion led to economic stagnation... MORE»
Although the ‘Perónist Years’ amounted to a little less than a decade, Juan Perón’s presidency had long-lasting effects. As historians Matthew B. Karush and Oscar Carosa write, “Perón transformed Argentina’s economy, its social structure, and its political culture in ways that continue... MORE»
Poverty effaces dreams. Oppression defeats hope. These conditions ruin the human spirit, which no one should tolerate. Liberals and conservatives agree on this. Consensus does exist to increase the standard of living, afford... MORE»
Argentina’s economic policies under Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were hugely impactful in the country’s recovery and general development, yet the Kirchner administrations are often... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Political Science

2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
This interdisciplinary paper investigates the shortfalls and obstacles to success currently facing the climate movement, examining issues represented by the disconnect between policy and electoral politics, the hypocrisy and blatant indifference... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 06
Two of the most prevalent protest movements in recent history were the Black Lives Matter and the #StopTheSteal movements. While there are many differences between the two, one of the most prevalent is their use of violence. Whereas the BLM movement... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 05
Strong linkages between autocrats and the military are often seen as a necessary condition for authoritarian regime survival in the face of uprising. The Arab Spring of 2011 supports this contention: the armed forces in Libya and Syria suppressed... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
During the summer of 2020, two fatal shootings occurred following Black Lives Matter protests. The first event involved Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the second Michael Reinoehl in Portland, Oregon. Two shootings, each committed by... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
In popular international relations (IR) theory, knowledge production is often dismissed as an objective process between the researcher and the empirical world. This article rejects this notion and contends that the process of knowledge production... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
This article explores the political relationship between nation-building, ethnicity, and democracy in the context of Ethiopia. It traces Ethiopia's poltical history, explores the consequential role ethnicity has played in the formation of the modern... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
The study examines the degree to which Xi Jinping has brought about a strategic shift to the Chinese outward investment pattern and how this may present significant political leverage and military advantages for China in the Indian Ocean Region (... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts
Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement
Finding Balance in Graduate School