It’s no secret that globally, democracy is on the decline. For the past decade scholars have been sounding the alarm, pointing out that developing countries are turning away from democratic values, disparaging the freedom of the press and cracking down on political dissidents.
But in the midst of these trends, it has generally been assumed that the problem is specific to poor countries and that developed countries like the United States will always remain politically stable. In a year marked by the shocking rise of populism and a foment of political unrest, those assumptions now face intense scrutiny.
Two weeks ago, the New York Times featured research by two political scientists showing that fewer young people believe that living in a democracy is absolutely “essential.” Critics dismissed the data as alarmist, sparking a fierce back–and–forth between academics over the course of the past week, as they tried to parse whether or not interest in democratic government is on the decline in liberal developed countries.
The ferocity of the debate may not be surprising given the tenor of this year’s election cycle. Countless pundits have anxiously wondered what Donald Trump’s presidency will mean for American government. Others fear the emergence of an emboldened far-right movement throughout Europe. It’s a moment of intense academic hand-wringing, all centered around a fundamental question: Where does political stability in a modern democracy come from?
The debate about young people’s commitment to democracy assumes that democratic governments are legitimated by certain political norms, such as tolerance for opposing viewpoints or equal protection of the law. When those norms begin to fade away, so too does the ability to hold government officials accountable. This is why so many people are afraid of polls that say 40 percent of millennials would accept limits on free speech that offend minority groups. They of course don’t condone negative speech against minority groups; they fear a radical reorganization of the rules governing our society.
The Founding Fathers, for their part, strongly distrusted the general public’s ability to maintain democratic norms (as George Washington once said, “One of the evils of democratic governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act”). For them, political stability was to be forged not through the people but through a strong federal system of checks and balances.
But is that enough? There are developed countries — Poland and Hungary, for example — that have had comparable checks and balances but may be moving away from democratic norms. What is the most important feature of a stable democracy? Certain institutions? Homogeneity of population? A strong legal system? Should we reconsider our assumption that developed democracies are inherently stable?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:
Arch Puddington, senior vice president for research at Freedom House
Jason Stanley, philosophy professor at Yale University
Mark Blyth, political economy professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University