Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Support for Democracy in Iran

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Support for Democracy in Iran

Article excerpt


This article presents the first systematic analysis of support for democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran and contributes to the scholarly literature on popular views of democracy in an authoritarian regime. It reaches three main findings. First, religiosity is strongly and negatively related with support for democracy. Second, education and age indirectly affect support for democracy; their effects are mediated through satisfaction with regime performance. Third, greater dissatisfaction with the regime strongly correlates with greater demands for democratization. The data come from a survey conducted in Tehran in 2008 and the 2005 Iranian World Values Survey.


comparative democratization, public opinion, political participation, religion, Iran

This article investigates support for democracy in Iran. What are the characteristics of individuals who espouse democratic ideas? The article first addresses the difficulties of conceptualizing and measuring support for democracy in authoritarian settings. It then systematically analyzes popular conceptions of and support for democracy in Iran in light of this discussion. The data come from two different types of random sampling surveys conducted in Iran: (1) a nationally representative survey conducted under the auspices of the World Values Surveys (WVS) in 2005 and (2) a survey conducted by the authors in Tehran in 2008. The main statistical analyses are based on the Tehran survey, which allows for a more detailed investigation. The article reaches three main conclusions. First, the effects of religiosity on democratic attitudes are direct and pronounced. Higher levels of religiosity are associated with higher levels of regime support and lower levels of support for democracy. Second, age and education indirectly affect support for democracy through satisfaction with regime performance. Finally, popular discontent with regime performance is strongly and positively correlated with support for democracy.

Measuring Support for Democracy

A common approach to measuring popular support for democracy in cross-national survey research is to construct an index variable based on several generic questions. WVS includes questions about the democratic performance (i.e., whether democracies are good at maintaining order, etc.) and ideals (i.e., approval of democracy and its superiority to other forms of government). When measured by these indicators, support for democracy in Muslim-majority countries is as widespread as in other countries (Tessler 2002; Hofmann 2004; Norris and Inglehart 2004, 146). At the same time, a growing body of literature addresses the problems associated with measuring support for democracy in cross-national surveys. Concepts may have different meanings in different countries (Przeworski and Teune 1966, 552), and the assumption that democracy can be measured by the same items in every culture is not always sustainable (Heath, Fisher, and Smith 2005, 320-21; Heath, Martin, and Spreckelsen 2009). Different actors may use the term for different purposes, ranging from expressing an amorphous political ideal to legitimizing their political interests. Confronting this issue is essential to avoid the problem of measurement error, "the discrepancy between respondents' attributes and their survey response" (Groves 1987, S162).

Measuring support for democracy in abstract terms may lead to misleading inferences given democracy's universal appeal. The respondents are likely to evaluate democracy as a better political system than alternatives regardless of what they understand from the concept. Not surprisingly, the level of popular support for democracy is not a good predictor of a country's level of democratic achievement (Inglehart 2003; Fails and Pierce 2010). An alternative strategy may be to ask respondents to evaluate the level of democracy in their own country. A commonly used survey item is "On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not all satisfied with the way democracy works in your country? …

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