The democratic West is crumbling, researchers from Harvard and the University of Melbourne warn. There’s less and less love for democracy to go around, a trend that seems to be sharpest among younger demographics.
For a long time now, liberal democracy was generally agreed upon to be not only the best form of government — but the only acceptable form of government. With the memory of illiberal, totalitarian governments such as fascism and communism (along with the horrors they often wrought) still fresh in the public conscience, it’s not hard to understand why.
That view, however, is changing. A paper published by Roberto Stefan Foa, Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Melbourne and Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard University’s Government Department, reports that over the past 25 years, people have progressively lost faith in democracies, instead turning to “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections.” Throughout Europe and the US, this political re-alignment is quite considerable, they note, and is seen disproportionately among younger demographics — which makes things even more worrying. They christened the process “deconsolidation,” a tip of the hat to the traditional view that once a democracy takes roots and ‘consolidates,’ it’s there to stay.
Tyranny birthed from democracy
The duo based their work mainly on data from the World Values Survey, based in Sweden, that polls people across 100 countries to study “changing values and their impact on social and political life.”
In 1995, some 16% of American respondents aged 16 to 24 said democracy isn’t the best way to run the country. By 2011, 24% said the same, the team reports. People are also less convinced, overall, that democracies are the way to go — as you can see in the chart below, fewer people in recent cohorts think it “essential” to live in a democracy compared to those before them. At the same time, younger generations are much more likely to deem democracies a bad or very bad way to “run this country,” both in Europe and the US.
Break down that first chart on a per-country basis, and you get this:
As you can see, the overall trend since about 1950 or so is anti-democratic, with the 80s cohorts (representing people born in the 80s) clocking in at an all-time low across the board. So while some 72% of Americans born in the 30s thought that democracy was fundamental to the modern state, only around 30% believed the same thing three decades ago, a whopping drop.
No trust, no turnout
Finding out why this happened, as most things regarding politics, isn’t easy. But one explanation, one I’ve previously touched upon when discussing fascism, is that people disillusioned with current politics look to alternative systems of governing themselves. They feel powerless despite their vote, so they look to leaders who will bypass it altogether and do something.
“Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout,” says Dr Foa.
This loss of confidence is glaringly, frighteningly apparent in the team’s findings. They write than among older generations of Americans, 43% of respondents thought it’s wrong for the military to take over the government when the latter is incompetent or fails to do its job. Among younger people, however, only 19% said such a coup was wrong. Similarly, support for an outright military rule is also increasing: in 1995, 1-in-16 Americans (6.25%) would pick military rule over democracy, but 1-in-6 (16.6%) would do the same in 2011.
Younger generations also show much more political apathy than previous generations. While it’s normal that generational discrepancies arise, since people usually get more interested in politics as they get older, the team says they’re seeing something that goes beyond the usual differences.
People are still getting involved in politics as they age, but younger cohorts are starting from a much lower baseline than those before them. The political apathy gap between old and young Americans went from 10% (in 1990) to 26% (in 2010). Among European respondents, it has more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, from 4% to 14%.
“I think there is a process that has been taking place for 20-30 years now where people have disengaged from formal types of politics such as joining political parties and even turning out to vote. Over the period of a generation the political elites have become very detached from the people. We now have career politicians and we have lobbyists and special interest groups having privileged access to our representatives,” Dr Foa adds.
“So people are justified in feeling frustrated, and in a real sense justified in feeling that Western democracies are less democratic than they use to be.”
Of the people, by the few, for just one
A rising anti-democratic sentiment doesn’t mean that established democratic institutions and practices “are no longer there,” the team writes, but it does point at trouble down the road. Waning public support is one of the first symptoms of a brittle democracy, one which can fall prey to populist demagoguery despite traditional indicators showing robust civil freedoms and democratic practices in a country.
The team compared their results with more traditional measures of the health of democracy in the countries, such as the Freedom House score and the Centre for Systemic Peace’s — which measure the strength of their civil liberties and democratic institutions. They found that deconsolidation can predict a later decay of democracy in some countries — for example, the same kind of public dissatisfaction with democracy seen in these surveys was mirrored in public surveys in places such as Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, or Greece a few years before these countries faced sustained assaults to established democratic systems.
In the 80s, Venezuela was considered to be a democratic success story. It followed a two-party system, scored high on the Freedom House ladder. By 1995, however, the Latinobarometer survey found that 46 % of Venezuelans believed democracy wasn’t delivering on their needs, and 81% wanted a strong leader. In 1998, the country would elect left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, and since then democracy has seen continual erosion in Venezuela. Poland has followed a similar path, with Lech Kaczynski’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party clamping down on media freedom and the courts after their re-election in 2015. Hungary’s ruling national conservative, right-wing populist Fidesz party is putting them at odds with the EU, and Greece is also dabbling further into non-democratic governments — this time towards the left, with their coalition of left-wing and radical left-wing groups, Syriza.
“This suggests that close attention to the signs of deconsolidation can indeed function as an early warning system, alerting careful observers to the kind of deep-seated discontent with democratic institutions that is liable to prove deeply destabilising before long,” the researchers write.
The authors worryingly found signs of deconsolidation throughout the rest of the still liberal, still democratic West. They acknowledge that institutions are more resilient in countries with a long tradition of liberal democracy, but they ultimately receive their mandate from the people — in the face of growing public dissatisfaction, these too will eventually submit.
The paper “The Danger of Deconsolidation” has been published in the Journal of Democracy.