No, polling companies aren’t trying to turn us into fascists

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There was a minor social media storm yesterday evening when some people shared a question that YouGov are currently asking in one of their surveys. People were asked on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree how much they agreed with the statement “the best way to run the country would be to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections”.

Now, seen on its own that question might seem odd and somewhat scary, but its not uncommon to see questions like that asked in political science research. Indeed, as Chris Hanretty reminded me in a Twitter discussion, the specific wording of that question is taken directly from the World Values Survey. The WVS is a project that’s been running since the 1980s, asking people in many different countries their views on a lot of different issue,s including politics, which then gives social scientists (including political scientists like me, as I’ve used WVS data in my PhD research) a useful data set of comparative information about opinions in different countries. By asking the same questions of people in different countries, and asking those questions repeatedly in different waves of the survey over the decades, we can find out a whole lot of things about how people’s attitudes are similar or different over the world. The WVS website has details of all the questions asked in the different waves, and also has an online analysis tool where you can look at the data yourself. (Or, if you’re the sort of person who likes to analyse data in even more depth and has a stats package on your laptop, you can download the data and analyse it yourself. More of that later.)

The ‘strong leader’ question is one of four asked about people’s opinion on the political system, amidst a wider section on political beliefs and actions. People are asked to indicate if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with them (unlike YouGov, there’s no neither option). Here’s the text in full (from the Wave 6 (2010–14) questionnaire):

(I’d be interested to know if YouGov asked the other three questions — the formatting of the question in the image suggests it was one of several)

As I’m one of those people with a stats package on their laptop, I’ve processed the answers to those questions and sorted each one by the countries in the WVS (from Algeria to Yemen) so you can see the results for yourselves. Not to sound too clickbaity, but some of the results may surprise you. One of the purposes of this sort of research is to look at the political norms in each country, giving us a chance to compare them and see what’s actually going on beneath the surface. These questions aren’t just being asked in a bunch of similar democracies, but across a range of different types of government, so they let us see how the type of system you live in affects your opinion on different ways of running the country.

The point of the World Values Survey (and any other competently done survey or opinion poll) is to attempt to get to people’s real opinions, not just the ones they publicly express because they’re socially acceptable. Framing of the question matters too. If you ask someone ‘are you a fascist?’ they’ll most likely say no because fascism is generally seen as a bad thing, but ask them the ‘strong leader’ question and they may give you a different answer that comes closer to their real opinion. (With the disclaimer that describing something as a ‘real opinion’ is making a bunch of assumptions — see this post I wrote a while ago for more on how people form opinions) If you want to find out how many people would support dictatorship, you need to frame the question and the survey in a way that gets them to give that honest opinion. Ask people if they’d electrocute a stranger because someone in authority told them to and they’ll probably say they wouldn’t, put them in a situation where they have to do that and they might.

This is not YouGov trying to prepare the ground for a fascist takeover, it’s researchers (and I don’t know who commissioned it — it may be part of WVS Wave 7, it may be someone borrowing their question format for something else) trying to find out what people genuinely think about an important political issue. We know that there’s an authoritarian trend in many different countries, and if you want to counter it, surely it’s important to see how widespread genuine support for it is? The question about a strong leader isn’t what should be worrying you, it’s how people answer it.

Originally published at on April 30, 2017.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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