Democratic consensus not so strong as we had been led to believe

At the Journal of Democracy, Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk review data from recent World Values Surveys indicating growing rejection of democracy in the younger generation–not just dissatisfaction with elected leaders but with the liberal democratic structure. (Hat tip to First Things.)  Excerpts:

The decline in support for democracy is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a “cohort” effect rather than an “age” effect. Back in 1995, for example, only 16 percent of Americans born in the 1970s (then in their late teens or early twenties) believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country. Twenty years later, the number of “antidemocrats” in this same generational cohort had increased by around 4 percentage points, to 20 percent. The next cohort—comprising those born in the 1980s—is even more antidemocratic: In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. Although this trend was somewhat more moderate in Europe, it was nonetheless significant: In 2011, 13 percent of European youth (aged 16 to 24) expressed such a view, up from 8 percent among the same age group in the mid-1990s (see Figure 2).

Historically, citizens have been more likely to engage in protests when they are young. So it is striking that, in the United States, one in eleven baby-boomers has joined a demonstration in the past twelve months, but only one in fifteen millennials has done so. In Europe, the picture is a little more mixed: Young respondents are more likely than older ones to have attended protests in the course of the past twelve months, but they do so at lower levels than previous cohorts did at the same age. This decline in political engagement is even more marked for such measures as active membership in new social movements. Participation in humanitarian and human-rights organizations, for example, is about half as high among the young as among older age cohorts. Thus we find that millennials across Western Europe and North America are less engaged than their elders, both in traditional forms of political participation and in oppositional civic activity.

In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule”—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and those who want experts rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Similarly, while 43 percent of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when Figure 3—The Widening “Political Apathy Gap” 53% 41% 48% 38% 63% 67% 52% 52% 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 1990 2010 1990 2010 United States Europe Interested in Politics 16-35 36+ Note: We compared the shares of U.S. and European respondents who reported being “fairly interested” or “very interested” in politics across two age cohorts: those 16 to 35 years old and those 36 or older. European countries included in both waves (constant sample) are Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Sweden. Number of valid responses: United States, 1990: 1,812; United States, 2011: 2,210; Europe, 1990–93: 13,588; Europe, 2010–12: 8,771. Source: World Values Surveys, Waves 2 (1990–94) and 6 (2010–14). Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk 13 the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19 percent. In Europe, the generation gap is somewhat less stark but equally clear, with 53 percent of older Europeans and only 36 percent of millennials strongly rejecting the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify having the army “take over.”

The idea that support for military rule has markedly increased among wealthy citizens of long-established liberal democracies is so counterintuitive that it naturally invites skepticism. Yet it is consistent with similar survey items that measure citizens’ openness to other authoritarian alternatives. In the United States, among all age cohorts, the share of citizens who believe that it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to “bother with parliament and elections” has also risen over time: In 1995, 24 percent of respondents held this view; by 2011, that figure had increased to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of citizens who approve of “having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country” has grown from 36 to 49 percent. One reason for these changes is that whereas two decades ago affluent citizens were much more likely than people of lower income groups to defend democratic institutions, the wealthy are now moderately more likely than others to favor a strong leader who can ignore democratic institutions (see Figure 4 below).

This is not all good news.  Rule by experts is arguably the natural outcome of liberalism, and desire for it indicates an unfortunate faith in the Leftist nonelected government, while desire for a strong leader may just reflect eight years of adulation of President Obama by the media.  Still, a quarter of young Americans were willing to say that democracy is a bad form of government.  I would never have expected this.  We anti-democrats have the impression, based on mainstream political discourse, of being a completely marginal minority, but this is not true.  The World War II propaganda is starting to wear off, and children who grow up on the narrative of Western wickedness will be less likely to accept its current political arrangement as obviously superior.  Could this be the moment for we authoritarians to make our case?

8 Responses

  1. I doubt the desire for an Obama-like strong leader is the reason younger people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with democracy. Instead, it’s the recent accelerating failures of democracy that have led people to seek out a government that just works, as opposed to one that is “chosen by the people.” After all, it’s easier to see that there is no sacredness to “self-government” when you get to witness its disastrous effects up close and personal.

  2. I suspect they are disillusioned with ‘democracy’ because it ignores the will of the people.

  3. Too many people (esepcially the secualr Right) are looking for a political system t replace deomocracy which is so perfect that it produces good results from the selfishly motivated efforts of bad people (e.g. they suppose that ‘the market’ is such a system) – but they won’t find one, andt the attempt will be destructive. Clearly, the problem is the motivations (or lack of them) of Western people in general and the global leaders in particular – purposively evil individuals will subvert/ invert any system or law.

  4. Bruce Charlton, you prove too much! If “purposively evil individuals will subvert/ invert any system or law”, then why have (positive) law?

    In fact, no one (that I’m aware of) on the so-called “secular right” are trying to create a “perfect” “political system to replace democracy”. Indeed, almost any system whatsoever to replace democracy will do, since there is no system which could produce worse–i.e., more disordered–results, statistically speaking. That naked corruption would be an improvement is not meant to imply an endorsement of naked corruption.

  5. “Could this be the moment for we authoritarians to make our case?”

    I suspect that among the admitted critics of democracy, a significant fraction may not have understood the question. Of those that did, I suspect a solid majority deem democracy, rule by the majority, to be insufficiently attentive to lately stylish minorities.

  6. @NBS,
    We have seen worse examples–Communism and other totalitarianisms. And we do not see a lot of consistently better systems either.
    I share Charlton’s complaint.

  7. It would be interesting to see the ethnic distribution of these changing views. Young is now more likely to be non-white.

  8. I’ve been antidemocratic for years because I’m a monarchist. But a nonliberal democracy Gabriel Garcia Moreno’s nonliberal one in Quito, Equador probably would work well if someone would do what he did. Moreno could overturn the popular vote when the majority voted for something contrary to divine law.

    Years ago, Sir Charles Coulombe gave a lecture with a teacher who wanted his students to know what was wrong with democracy. To do that, he handed out old copies of an exam and asked the students to vote for the answers they thought were correct. So the majority always voted for incorrect ones.

    Would President Obama have been elected in a nonliberal democracy? I doubt it, and I hope not.

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