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Learning about Democracy in Africa: Awareness, Performance, and Experience


  • The surveys on which this article is based were generously supported by the United States Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Agency, the Danish Governance Fund at the World Bank, and the United States National Science Foundation. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the American Journal of Political Science as well as Etannibi Alemika, Russell Dalton, David Featherman, Steve Finkel, James Gibson, Paul Graham, E. Gyimah-Boadi, Evan Lieberman, William Mishler, Pippa Norris, Jeremy Seekings, Doh C. Shin, Steve Snook, Sheryl Stumbras, and Jan Terrel for valuable comments on earlier versions of this article.

Robert Mattes is professor of political studies, University of Cape Town, Centre for Social Science Research, Robert Leslie Social Science Building, Private Bag, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa ( Michael Bratton is professor of political science, Michigan State University, 303 S. Kedzie Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1032 (


Conventional views of African politics imply that Africans' political opinions are based either on enduring cultural values or their positions in the social structure. In contrast, we argue that Africans form attitudes to democracy based upon what they learn about what it is and does. This learning hypothesis is tested against competing cultural, institutional, and structural theories to explain citizens' demand for democracy (legitimation) and their perceived supply of democracy (institutionalization) with data from 12 Afrobarometer attitude surveys conducted between 1999 and 2001. A multilevel model that specifies and estimates the impacts of both individual- and national-level factors provides evidence of learning from three different sources. First, people learn about the content of democracy through cognitive awareness of public affairs. Second, people learn about the consequences of democracy through direct experience of the performance of governments and (to a lesser extent) the economy. Finally, people draw lessons about democracy from national political legacies.