Wed | Oct 5, 2022

Our democracy at risk

Published:Saturday | June 27, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The findings from the 2014 Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and in the Americas Survey should be of concern to Jamaicans in light of its implications for our democracy. The study posits that "stable democracies need citizens who grant their institutions legitimacy and who tolerate and respect the rights of dissenters" and, therefore, suggests that "system support and political tolerance influence democratic stability." Tracking a decade of AmericasBarometer opinion data on the extent of political system support and political tolerance in Jamaica, the study suggests that Jamaica's democracy is either unstable and, possibly, at risk.

The study defines "system support" as a "summary belief in the legitimacy of political institutions in a country and overall levels of support for how the political system is organised". Using questions about five components of our political system, an index of system support was created intending to capture the inherent value we place in our democratic institutions that is expected to be fairly stable over time.

However, the study found major losses in Jamaica, which was ranked 22nd out of 25 countries in the Americas, indicating a low level of "system support". The findings revealed that since 2006, there has been declining support for all five components of the political system comprising the index of "system support" -

1. respect for political institutions;

2. courts guarantee of a fair trial;

3. respect for basic rights;

4. pride in political system; and

5. support for the political system.


Growing support



for vigilantism


Much more troubling is the gradual increase in support for vigilante justice, illegal protest action, and for the actions of those who may attempt to overthrow government, mainly from those in the lower wealth quintiles and younger persons. The study found a strong correlation between age and such acts of protest: "persons in the 18-25 age group are two times more likely to approve of these activities than those in the 65 and older cohort."

Significantly, the percentage of the population who would support those willing to overthrow the government grew from nine per cent to 18 per cent between 2006 and 2014.

The concept of 'tolerance' is a complex and multifaceted issue. The study defines 'tolerance' as "the extent to which people respect and accommodate the views, positions, and behaviours of others, especially those that are at odds with the sentiments and practices of the majority". The analysts argue that the survival of liberal democratic institutions also requires "citizens to accept the principles of open democratic competition and tolerance of dissent".

Using the responses to questions about our attitudes towards people who only say bad things about government, an index was created to measure the extent of political tolerance. Here, Jamaica fared well, indicating a relatively high degree of political tolerance, ranking sixth out of 25 countries in the Americas.

However, while Jamaica scored high on political tolerance, Dr Daniel Montalvo, programme manager, Vanderbilt University, who executed the study along with University of the West Indies scholars, informed the audience at a presentation of the findings on July 10 at the Pegasus hotel that Jamaicans scored very high on tolerance of corruption. According to the survey, most respondents agreed that paying a bribe is justified sometimes. The well-publicised findings on our very low tolerance for same-sex marriage or homosexuals running for public office is another measure of tolerance used in the study. These and other well-known forms of social intolerance in Jamaica, including forms related to race/class not captured in the study, should give us cause for concern if the study is correct in suggesting that low system support and low political tolerance imply a democracy at risk.


Protecting our Democracy


Combining the extent of high system support and high political tolerance, the study estimated the degree of 'Stable Democracy Attitudes' of each of country and found that Jamaica scored only 16.7 per cent and ranked a low 18th out of the 25 countries, indicating that our democracy is either unstable or at risk. The top three countries with the most stable democracies were Canada with the highest score (56.8%), Uruguay (38.5%) and the United States (37.1%).

Importantly, the study points to the key ingredients for protecting our democracy: education and citizen participation. So we know what to do: EDUCATE and PARTICIPATE!

Significantly, the study notes that "a single (marginal) year of education has the greatest effect on tolerance". I fully agree with the view of the analysts that tolerance can be taught and, indeed, should be a deliberate policy. However, our approach to understanding and teaching this complex concept of 'tolerance' should be carefully examined. Tolerance and intolerance do not define the end points of a continuous, unidimensional construct. Using categories instead of unidimensional scales in studying tolerance are likely to yield a more nuanced understanding of tolerance. The expression of tolerance/intolerance extend beyond matters of degree. People are tolerant/intolerant for different reasons and they put up with individuals and groups they don't like in different ways and for different reasons.

Many Jamaicans, for example, will 'tolerate' homosexual employers who pay them very well and treat them with dignity and respect, but may not tolerate white or brown Jamaicans who treat them with disrespect. I suggest that the indicators used to measure tolerance of homosexuals, and other forms of tolerance, should be carefully examined with the aim of creating a more comprehensive, multidimensional measure. We need to 'unpack' the concept and distinguish between different dimensions of tolerance in the Jamaican context so as to be better guided as to how to teach respect and accommodation of views, positions, and behaviours of others that are at odds with the sentiments and practices of the majority.


Citizen participation key


Citizen participation in governance is essential for protecting our democracy. On the two direct participation measures used, i.e., attending town meetings and presenting requests to local offices, Jamaica ranked below the average in the region. This may be linked to dissatisfaction and distrust of local government. Jamaica ranked dead last among the 25 countries in the Americas on the extent of satisfaction of local government services (40.5 per cent) and trust in local government (33.7 per cent). Whatever the reason for limited citizen engagement, Jamaicans must begin to see participation in governance as a civic responsibility. This, too, must be taught as a matter of policy. Political apathy or willingness to overthrow any government are not meaningful solutions to the problems in our democracy.

This study (available online) should make us pause and reflect on the state of our democracy today. The analysts remind us of the statement (warning) by Selwyn Ryan in 2000 when he asked whether our "historically favourable political culture, which we inherited together with a sophisticated complex of liberal democratic institutions, are sufficiently well entrenched to withstand the hurricane-like social storms that are roaring throughout the region?"

Government and our political parties should carefully reflect on this question in light of the data on the growing number of (mainly young) Jamaicans feeling disaffected with the system. But this should not only be the concern of the government and political parties. All of us as OWNERS of Jamaica, with ownership responsibility to protect our democracy, should seek to find solutions to these troubling findings!

- Rosalea Hamilton, PhD,

VP, community service and

development, UTech

Scotiabank Chair professor,

entrepreneurship and development, UTech.

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