Are young people turning away from democracy?

richard o'neillRichard O’Neill is a UCD Master of Public Policy student. Here he questions recent claims about the rise of anti-democratic sentiment among millennials, but warns that there is no room for complacency in the defence of democratic values.

Millennials get a bad rap. In the last year we’ve been blamed for ruining the American wine industry, the Canadian tourism industry, golf, and even the E.U. Our voracious appetite for destruction has now turned to democracy. That is according to Roberto Stefan Foa, lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne and a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, and Yashca Mounk, a lecturer in political theory at Harvard. Their paper, ‘the Signs of Deconsolidation’, in the January 2017 volume of the Journal of Democracy demonstrates a disturbing trend of young people losing their faith in democracy. Their graph below starkly illustrates the point. The proportion of Americans believing it is “essential” to live in a democracy has reduced from 72% amongst those born pre-Second World War to 30% amongst millennials. A similar pattern is evidenced in other established democracies including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia. Their conclusions are all the more worrying as they coincide with the rise of populism and anti-system parties, with the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of populist parties in Poland, Hungary, Finland and more as well as the popularity of the Front National, Alternative für Deutschland, and the Freedom Party of Austria. But is all as it seems – are millennials such a serious threat to democracy in the West, as the figure below seems to suggest (Foa, Stefan & Mounk, Yascha (2016) The democratic disconnect. Journal of Democracy, 27, 3, 5-17):

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The theory of democratic consolidation holds that once a country adopts democracy and democratic institutions, it is unlikely to revert to other political systems. Data from Freedom House, an independent watchdog that promotes and measures democracy around the world, appears to back this up. It shows the number of countries categorized as “free” has increased steadily from the 1970s to the 2000s. However, from 2005 onwards Freedom House has shown a reduction in global freedom year after year. Foa and Mounk claim that our growing confidence in this concept is misplaced and that their research shows dissatisfaction with democracy is coupled with a scepticism of political institutions, a declining voter turnout, the support of “anti-system” parties, and an openness to authoritarian interpretations of democracy. Their conclusion is that consolidated democracies are more vulnerable than we might hope.

What the authors provide is a three-step framework for understanding whether a democracy is “deconsolidating.” The first is the level of support within a country for democracy. The second is the extent to which the population is open to other forms of non-democratic government. And the third factor is whether anti-system parties and movements are gaining support. If support for democracy is waning while the other two factors are rising, the country can be classed as deconsolidating. According to this early warning system, there are signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and the other established democracies.

A related paper by the same authors shows that in 1995, 16% of Americans in their late teens and early twenties rated democracy as a “bad” or “very bad” way of governing. By 2011, that figure had increased to 24% of millennials. 41% of Americans born in the interwar period state that it is “absolutely essential” in a democracy that civil rights protect people’s liberty. Amongst millennials, this figure is 32%. For a democracy to function, regular, free, and fair elections are fundamental. Although a sizeable majority of millennials still agree with this basic premise, it is noticeable that this too is on the decline. 10% of Americans born in the interwar period and 14% of baby-boomers say it is “unimportant” in a democracy for a leader to be chosen in free elections. For millennials, this figure is 26%. The paper cites European national polls to further back up the authors’ claim that such deconsolidation can be seen across established democracies. In a 2016 German poll, a large majority of respondents supported democracy as an idea, yet only about half of the respondents approved of “democracy as it works in the Federal Republic of Germany today.” More than 20% believed that Germany needed a strong, single party “that represents the people.” In a French poll in 2015, 40% of respondents believed the country should be ruled by “an authoritarian government” free from democratic constraints.

Coinciding with the decline in millennials’ support for democracy is a decrease in civic engagement. From the 1960s on, voter turnout and political party membership numbers have dropped with 53% of young Americans in 1990 stating they were “fairly” or “very” interested in politics. For millennials the figure has dropped to 41%. Ultimately, what the authors are claiming is that if the trends they have identified persist, democracy may not always be the “only game in town” in consolidated democracies.

The authors’ conclusions have attracted much attention and criticism. Jeff Guo stated in the Washington Post that the graph itself is alarming and the way the data is presented is “misleading.” Foa and Mounk’s chart just shows the respondents who rate the importance of living in a democracy as a 10/10, and ignore those that responded with a 9 or an 8. When presented in Guo’s more nuanced way (see below), it appears that millennials are certainly less enthusiastic about democracy than previous generations, but are not by any means against democracy.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 11.14.55Erik Voeten, reflecting on the work by Foa and Mounk, comes to the conclusion that the situation is “not at all” as dire as presented. Voeten raises the same issue as Guo, that the data is presented in a selective way. Again he uses the same data to plot a graph including those who answered the question with a 8, 9 or 10. As with the Guo graph, the result is less alarming. The importance attached to living in a democracy is still trending downwards amongst millennials, albeit in a less startling manner than that initially presented.

The claim by Foa and Mounk that support for democracy amongst the young is plummeting is almost certainly alarmist. The criticisms of the paper are fair, and perhaps particular data was selected for the original graph to add to its “shock” value. But the critics, I believe, are too definitive in their conclusions. Goa claims to have debunked the original thesis while Voeten dismisses the seriousness of the findings. Foa and Mounk are standing by their claims, and Yashca Mounk insists in the New York Times that “the warning signs are flashing red.” If the paper is guilty of being alarmist as its critics say, perhaps the critics are also guilty of being complacent. In the face of a Trump presidency, Brexit, and the rising support for anti-system and populist political parties across Europe, complacency will not serve us well. It might be that the warning signs are flashing amber, and this is an issue that should be of great interest and concern to academics, the media, and politicians – and to ordinary citizens.

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