The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, people really aren’t turning away from democracy

Hundreds of anti-Donald Trump protesters hold a demonstration in Washington Square Park in New York City on Nov. 11. (Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images)

People in Europe and the United States have soured on the idea of democracy and have become open to nondemocratic ways to run their countries. That’s what Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk argue in an interesting article in the Journal of Democracy that has gotten a lot of media play. Millennials are especially to blame: They are much less attached to democracy and more likely to endorse alternatives even in countries where the collapse of democracy seems unimaginable.

But how much evidence is there really for these ideas? Earlier this week, I already showed how a viral graph published by the New York Times exaggerated the value gap with younger citizens. Mounk and Foa have now doubled down on their claims, saying that there’s more to it than just the one graph.

Below and in an accompanying paper I take a more systematic look at the data. In short, there is no evidence for an overall trend. People in advanced democracies have not become more enthusiastic for nondemocratic alternatives and there is no drop in support for democracy. I do find differences between millennials and other generations. But these are modest and mostly limited to the United States.

That doesn’t mean that democracies are safe. There is plenty to worry about. But the threat does not come from abstract procedural preferences among younger people for alternative regime types.

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What the data say

The World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Survey (EVS) have asked people in countries across the world what they think of various types of political systems as a way of governing their country. The options were “having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country,” “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections,” “having the army rule,” and “having a democratic political system.” This set of questions directly gets at preferences for democracy and its alternatives.

To understand broad trends, we must look at these items together in a pre-defined group of countries rather that cherry-pick findings that fit our preconceived ideas. The prime target of Foa and Mounk’s original article are consolidated democracies in Western Europe, and the Anglophone countries in the Americas and the Pacific, although they now also use countries like Russia to make their case.

The graph below shows all countries from the Western group for which we have at least three measurements on all four indicators. The paper has graphs for more countries, including non-Western democracies. The graph below shows the percentage of people who answer “fairly” or “very” good but it looks very similar if we plot averages.

If Foa and Mounk are right, then we would expect the democracy lines to decline and the others to rise over time. But there is no such pattern in the data.  In each country, democracy is most popular by some distance and has remained so over the past two decades. In most countries, positive assessments of democracy as a political system top 90 percent. Expert rule is next. Army rule has almost no support. There is little systematic movement over time. In some countries support for democracy has grown a bit. In others, it seems to have declined slightly. But there is no clear overall trend that jumps out for any of the indicators.

In the accompanying paper, I estimate trend lines for different groupings of countries. It’s not much fun to look at a bunch of straight lines so I’m not putting them up here. But the message is clear: There is no evidence in these surveys that support for democracy has decreased nor that people have become more enthusiastic about nondemocratic alternatives. That may be true in some countries but there is no general pattern.

This is a bit surprising. There is no uptick in the demand for a strong leader nor erosion of support for technocracy. This contradicts some of what we hear and read these days about the rise of populism. It may well be that a more recent survey would show something different. But the data we have provide no basis to conclude that people in Western democracies have gradually moved away from democracy and have started to embrace authoritarian alternatives.

Everything you need to know about the spread of populism worldwide.

What about millennials?

The graph that created such a stir showed that younger generations were less enthusiastic about democracy than older generations. What we don’t know is whether this is because young people are different or whether this is something specific about the millennial generation.

The figure below plots the same data but now just for people under the age of 35. This allows us to see if young people in the 2010s are relatively less favorable toward democracy than were young people in the 1990s.

In most countries, support for democracy is a little lower among younger people than among older generations. But there is not much change over time. Millennials are not very different in their views of political systems than were young people in the mid 1990s.

The big exception is the United States. In the 2011 survey, Americans under the age of 35 had become relatively less favorable toward democracy and more favorable toward army rule and a strong leader (but also expert decision-making!). This can be significant. The United States is an important country that is often credited for spreading democracy around the globe. If its younger generation is less enthusiastic about democracy compared to its alternatives, then this matters a great deal.

On the other hand, it could be just a fluke of a single survey. It’s hard to pick up small effects in subpopulations with surveys. Still, the U.S. finding is worth a closer look. Some of the other Anglophone democracies also reveal a hint of a millennial effect.

In the paper, I also estimate statistical models that try to separate the effects of birth decades from age in these Western democracies. There is some evidence that people born in the ’90s are more favorable toward nondemocratic alternatives but there is no drop in support for democracy.

The graph below plots the predicted probabilities across Western countries of assessing a particular political system as “very good.” Pay attention to the scale! (Cohort effects would be invisible if I plotted them all on a 0-1 scale). The average effects are small. The largest effect is that people born in the ’90s are about three percentage points more likely to be favorably inclined toward a strong leader than people born in the 1960s. That’s not nothing but also not a reason to start ringing the alarm bells. Of course, if the effect is large in the United States, then this may matter a lot, so that’s certainly something to look into more closely.

So what does this mean?

Public support for democracy is not a major problem in well-established Western democracies. Or at the very least, it’s not a bigger problem than it was 20 years ago. There is no strong evidence that people in Western democracies have slowly become so dissatisfied with democracy that they are starting to embrace alternatives.

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Mounk and Foa warn that not taking their findings seriously reeks of complacency and that “complacency has been the dominant response of Western elites to the looming threats of Brexit, of Donald Trump and of the rise of illiberal politics.” I’m not sure that complacency is how I would characterize elite responses to these events. We are not lacking for warnings that the world as we know it is coming to an end. And it’s dangerous too to tell the world that people are now ready to accept nondemocratic governance.

I’m not saying at all that democracies are not at risk. As Cas Mudde put it, “populism tends to get ugly when it gets into power.” If liberal democratic institutions conflict with the more substantive goals of populist movements, then we may well see an erosion of checks and balances.

Indeed, research shows that a preference for strong leaders or army rule typically follows from economic and security threats. The phenomenon of the illiberal democracy is real. But the threat does not come from major shifts in public support for democracy or its authoritarian alternatives.