Are the norms underpinning the liberal democratic governments of North America and Western Europe as fragile as the communist ideology of Russia and Eastern Europe in the decades preceding its sudden collapse? That’s the implication of a provocative essay by the political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy using World Values Survey data to highlight the broad-based erosion in support for democratic institutions across the Western world. Some of their more alarming findings:
- Young people are less attached to democracy than their elders. “When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how ‘essential’ it is for them ‘to live in a democracy,’ 72 percent of those born before World War II check ’10,’ the highest value. So do 55 percent of the same cohort in the Netherlands. But … the millennial generation has grown much more indifferent. Only one in three Dutch millennials accords maximal importance to living in a democracy; in the United States, that number is slightly lower, around 30 percent … On the whole, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among the young, and support for freedom of speech lower.”
- Americans increasingly support an all-powerful executive. “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.”
- Support for popular sovereignty has declined especially quickly among the wealthy. “In 1995, the ‘rich’ (defined as deciles 8 to 10 on a ten-point income scale) were the most opposed to undemocratic viewpoints, such as the suggestion that their country would be better off if the ‘army’ ruled. Lower-income respondents (defined as deciles 1 to 5) were most in favor of such a proposition. Since then, relative support for undemocratic institutions has reversed. In almost every region, the rich are now more likely than the poor to express approval for ‘having the army rule.'”
The paper is not the last word on the subject, and there are a number of potential sources of democratic strength that it doesn’t address, including the high levels of social tolerance among young people, the continued veneration of meritocracy (democracy’s close cousin), and the appeal of populist movements from across the spectrum aimed (ostensibly) at curtailing elite power and amplifying the voices of ordinary voters.
But it does highlight the fact that the democratic discontent of 2016 is not just a temporary episode can be allayed by rebuffing Putin’s shenanigans or hectoring voters about their irresponsibility or putting the right technocrats in charge. The dark specter of illiberalism across the West is symptomatic of a deep and broad-based decline in confidence in democratic institutions and ideas that has been taking place for two decades. Champions of liberalism need to think hard about how to reverse this—and soon—because as Foa and Mounk point out, the floor could fall out from under our feet all at once.