Now is the season for democracy’s doomsayers. Between the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the far-right nationalist parties in Europe, some of the world’s most vigorous democracies have been shaken up by political movements with distinctly authoritarian shadings, who have threatened democratic institutions like tolerance, the rule of law, and the free press. “The challenges confronting western democracies as 2016 draws to a ragged close are of a breadth and intensity not seen since the early 1980s,” The Guardian declared recently.
Some of the best evidence has come in the form of research by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk that shows that more and more citizens of established democracies are becoming skeptical of democracy’s worth. “[M]odern democracies, including America’s, are far more vulnerable to hostile takeover than you might think,” Mounk wrote recently in a op-ed.
But the data is far less alarming than it seems.
What the data really show
According to a recent article in the New York Times, Foa and Mounk believe that these opinion surveys offer an “an early-warning system” for governmental collapse, “a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms.” And right now, apparently, the prognosis is dire.
This is one of their most disturbing charts. The researchers claim that a plummeting percentage of people believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy.
But consider how this question was asked: People were told to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how important it was to live in a democracy. Foa and Mounk’s chart only shows the percentage of people who answered a full 10 out of 10 — which is more than a tad misleading. What about all the people who answered 8 or 9? Here is the same data from the same survey, but presented in a more nuanced way.
It turns out that American millennials are indeed less enthusiastic than their parents or grandparents about living in a democracy. But they are by no means skeptics of democracy. They’re just a bit less gung-ho about it. On a scale of 1-10, a majority of them still think that living in a democracy merits an 8, 9 or 10.
Consider, also, Foa and Mounk’s claim that merely 19 percent of American millennials are “strongly rejecting the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify having the army ‘take over.’”
Again, the actual survey question was a little different. People were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether certain things were an “essential characteristic of democracy.”
About 19 percent of millennials gave army takeovers a 1 out of 10 — meaning they believed is was “not at all an essential characteristic of democracy.” But another 47 percent rated army takeovers at a 2 to 5 out of 10.
What any of this signifies is open to interpretation. What does it mean if you believe something is “not essential” to democracy? What does anything mean when you ask people abstract questions about abstract ideas?
Survey research is notoriously difficult work. People’s responses are highly sensitive to a question’s wording — which is why it is important to understand precisely how the questions were asked before beginning to draw conclusions.
The real message here
Is Western democracy on the precipice of collapse? That’s one way to interpret the data. But it’s unclear how predictive these survey questions really are. Foa and Mounk say that the opinion data could foretell, for instance, the weakening of democracies in Venezuela and Poland in recent decades. But neither Venezuela nor Poland had strong democratic institutions in the first place.
The democracies in places like United States and northern Europe are much more established. What does it mean that democratic fervor in these places is declining? By and large, we just don’t know.
The Foa and Mounk research is important because it draws our attention to an important trend in modern established democracies: Younger people just don’t seem to be feeling it. But this is not the force that caused Brexit. This is not the force that elected Donald Trump, who only got 37 percent of the millennial vote — 18 points behind Hillary Clinton.
There are more reasonable ways to explain these generational differences in attitudes about democracy.
Younger generations are more apathetic about politics in general, so it’s not surprising that they might feel a little less attached to the idea of democracy. Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, argues that the economy may have a lot to do with these feelings of disaffection. The millennial generation hit the job market just as the Great Recession was beginning. Economic insecurity, Inglehart says, tends to make people lose faith in the way their governments function.
So if you want to find the objective correlatives of Foa and Mounk’s data, look to the millennials who participated in Occupy Wall Street, the millennials who were die-hard Bernie Sanders fans.
That may be the kind of democratic dissatisfaction that these opinion surveys are picking up.
None of this is to say that all is well in the world. It’s just that, with inequality on the rise, fake news spreading, and the far-right gaining power, millennial anxiety may not be the most immediate threat to Western democracies.