Losing faith in democracy


Some deeply disturbing reports in the Washington Post Wonkblog today. First, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa write, Yes, people really are turning away from democracy:

We have been surprised by the scale and intensity of attention our work has garnered around the world since the New York Times profiled it last week. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been. Our research, after all, helped contextualize the seismic shifts we’ve seen in some of the world’s long-standing democracies over the past year — and comes to some rather startling findings.

Public attitudes toward democracy, we show, have soured over time. Citizens, especially millennials, have less faith in the democratic system. They are more likely to express hostile views of democracy. And they vote for anti-establishment parties and candidates that disregard long-standing democratic norms in ever greater numbers.


It is to be expected that claims as disconcerting as these would evoke some skepticism. Over the past week, our critics have mooted three main objections: They claim that our findings are highly sensitive to the wording of particular survey questions or the way in which we interpret particular results; they claim that, contrary to what we are saying, millennials are not more critical of democracy than their elders, and they dispute that disenchantment with democracy has markedly increased over time.

We would be very pleased if these criticisms held true. After all, we’d rather be reassured of the stability of our democracies than win an argument. Sadly, though, we remain as alarmed as we have ever been.

1. It’s not just that one graph

One of the most striking figures from our work, which will soon be published in the Journal of Democracy, shows that younger generations in long-standing democracies are much less likely to consider it “essential” to live in a democracy than earlier cohorts. To illustrate the point, we showed the proportion of respondents across different birth cohorts giving the maximum result of 10. This invites an obvious riposte: Perhaps younger generations have cooled on democracy, slipping from a 10 to a 9 or an 8 — but have not grown altogether indifferent or even hostile to democratic governance. An analysis done by Joe Noonan shows that this is not the case: Even if strong support for democracy is interpreted less stringently, a much larger number of millennials has become indifferent to its fate.

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 10.23.48 AM

Nor are our findings an artifact of one particular survey question. After all, other survey items produce similar results. In the World Values Survey, the most comprehensive effort at measuring public opinion across more than 100 countries, the proportion of respondents stating that “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run the country, for example, is strikingly similar to our original chart. Younger cohorts in the long-standing democracies of the West do not just give less importance to living in a democracy; a larger share of them also openly rejects democratic institutions.

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 10.25.45 AM

How meaningful is the distance between support for democracy among young and among older people? It may look reassuring that the overall share of citizens who openly disdain democracy remains rather small (10-20 percent of respondents, in most cases). But it shouldn’t be. After all, even in failing democracies, the share of citizens who openly oppose democracy never exceeds 20-30 percent of respondents. Of the more than 100 countries surveyed by the World Values Survey, the country in which skepticism of democracy is most widespread is Russia, where since 1995, an average of 26 percent of respondents have stated that having a democratic political system is a “bad” way to run the country. In the United States, 23 percent of millennials now express the same sentiment.

2. Young citizens are more critical of democracy than they used to be

Young citizens today are more skeptical of democracy than their parents were at the same age. As we pointed out in an earlier article for Journal of Democracy, published this July, this trend is especially striking in the United States, where an illiberal “cohort shift” is evident over time, and across a range of survey items. The next chart, for example, compares the number of Americans of different generations stating that it would be a “fairly good” or “very good” idea to have “a strong leader” rather than “parliament and elections” in 1995 and in 2011. Younger cohorts are simply more likely to agree with this anti-democratic point of view. In the last survey, almost half of millennials expressed approval for a “strong leader”.

Young Americans Are More Open to having a “Strong Leader”


Do the same findings hold across the universe of long-standing, supposedly established democracies? We do not claim that the effect is equal in all countries, and analyzing such variation would be an important extension of our work. In Sweden, for example, younger cohorts may be more skeptical of democracy than their elders — but a comparison of data over time shows they are more pro-democratic than their counterparts were in the 1990s (Figure 3). But in most of the long-standing democracies for which we have data, our trend holds. In Germany, younger cohorts used to be reliably more pro-democratic than older ones. Now, both the young and the middle-aged express more authoritarian values than people did at similar life stages in the past. The picture is even less encouraging in the United Kingdom and the United States, where millennials surveyed today are markedly more favorable to having a “strong leader” than their parents’ generation was at the same life stage.

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 10.31.20 AM

It’s tempting to explain these findings away. For example, it seems likely that younger citizens are less sanguine about democracy in part because they lack the direct experience of living under, or fighting against, authoritarian regimes like fascism or communism. But that need not be a comforting explanation. After all, the very same reasons may lead younger people to vote for extreme candidates who would erode key elements of liberal democracy.

In fact, there is reasonably strong evidence that younger citizens are not only more skeptical of democracy than they once were but also more drawn to political extremes than in the past. Since the early 1990s, the proportion of young respondents (with “young” defined as age 14-35) who self-identify as either radical left (“1” on a 10-point left-right political spectrum) or radical right (“10” on the left-right scale) has increased in many countries, and at both ends of the scale.

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 10.34.18 AM

In the United Kingdom and the United States, this energy has mostly manifested itself as enthusiastic support for populist candidates of the left, like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, younger citizens have generally been opposed to Donald Trump or to exit from the European Union. But in other countries, many of them have embraced right-wing populists, as shown by the strong support of young people for France’s Front National, the large youth vote for Greece’s Golden Dawn, and the strong support the far-right AfD enjoys among young Germans. Anti-establishment sentiment is real — and depending on the circumstances, it can be mobilized by parties of the right as well as the left.

3. Citizens have grown more disenchanted with democracy over time

Our claims about weaker support for democracy among younger people have understandably garnered a lot of attention. But as we wrote in our initial article, this is only one small aspect of our overall research. Yes, young people are more critical of democracy than older people, or indeed than their parents had been at a similar life stage. But longitudinal data also show a real shift in authoritarian sentiment across other age groups.

The World Values Survey first asked whether it would be good to have a “strong leader” who does not have to bother with parliament and elections in 1995. Since then, public attitudes to democracy (parliament and elections) vis-à-vis authority (a strong leader) have soured in most democracies. Taking the full sample of democracies of the 1990s, we can see that authoritarian preference has increased in most developed democracies, and that the picture is even worse in most developing democracies.

Rising Share of Respondents in Favor of a “Strong Leader” Instead of Elections


There still isn’t a lot of cross-country, longitudinal data about attitudes to democracy. Perhaps the last years are an anomaly. Or perhaps new evidence, taking into account the shift from 2012 to date, will show a continuation of the trend. Many of these questions will be answered in 2017-19, when the World Values Survey conducts its next round of surveys. So it’s important to keep an open mind and to avoid panic.

But the opposite of panic is not calm; it is complacency. And 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. The comforting assumption that the past will remain a reliable guide to the future — that countries would not vote for extreme candidates when they never have before, or indeed that core norms of liberal democracy wouldn’t come under attack where democracy has always been “the only game in town” — hasn’t worked out very well so far. Now is the time to stop being complacent.

Matt O’Brien examines the rise of anti-establishment “populist” political parties in Europe and writes that “Liberal democracy is still facing its worst crisis since the 1930s.” Do not be reassured by false hope. The center is not holding. (excerpt):

None of this should be too surprising. Rich countries, after all, haven’t been able to deliver the kind of rising middle class standard of living that people have expected for a long time now. The simple story is that we had the best and most broadly-shared growth in recorded history in the quarter century between 1948 and 1973, but have fallen off since. And no, this isn’t about globalization or automation taking all the good manufacturing jobs. The opposite, actually. Technology hasn’t improved enough for incomes to improve.

Countries covered this up by having women work more, people borrow more, or their safety net do more—or all three. Although it’s worth pointing out that other policies like the minimum wage and unionization could and did make a difference in just how slow this slowdown was for the middle class. As economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman found, the bottom 50 percent have done much, much better in France than they have in the United States the last 35 years. But in any case, other than a burst of growth in the late 1990s, people haven’t done as well as they thought they would. And now the financial crisis has taken away their coping mechanisms. All across Europe and the U.S., people have given up on the idea that their kids will be better off than they are.

Economic growth is what frees us from zero sum politics. When we’re doing better than we used to, we don’t worry so much about how everybody else is doing. We’re more generous and tolerant of others who don’t look, sound, or worship like we do. That, at least, is what economist Ben Friedman found in his classic book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. But when incomes don’t grow as much as people hoped, they become jealous of what everyone else has—and worried that newcomers are taking what is rightfully theirs. Immigrants, of course, can face a backlash no matter the state of the economy, but whether that’s confined to the far-right fringe or finds a wider audience depends, in large part, on how people think they’re doing.

O’Brien is drawing a direct line from inequality and reduced economic opportunity to the rise of anti-democratic, authoritarian movements. Inequality has led to a loss of faith in democracy.

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” — Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on November 11, 1947.

UPDATE: Eric Voeten at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, who disputes the research of Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, responds No, people really aren’t turning away from democracy:

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

There is much more in Voeten’s post. Worth reading for comparison and contrasting views.

Previous articleThe New Fourth Estate
Next articleThe ‘Repeal and Delay’ Scam
AZ BlueMeanie
The Blue Meanie is an Arizona citizen who wishes, for professional reasons, to remain anonymous when blogging about politics. Armed with a deep knowledge of the law, politics and public policy, as well as pen filled with all the colors stolen from Pepperland, the Blue Meanie’s mission is to pursue and prosecute the hypocrites, liars, and fools of politics and the media – which, in practical terms, is nearly all of them. Don’t even try to unmask him or he’ll seal you in a music-proof bubble and rendition you to Pepperland for a good face-stomping. Read blog posts by the infamous and prolific AZ Blue Meanie here.


  1. Yes, they speak their dislike of democracy from a comfortable world created by it. Churchill once said that “Democracy is a terrible way to govern, it is just better than all the others.”

    The truth is that pure democracy is a bad thing. It leads to the tyranny of the majority which is rarely good. The Founders knew that which is why we don’t have a democracy…we have a democratic republic. It is a very different thing. The Founders knew that majorities would run rough shod over the minorities so they established a Senate where small states had equal footing with large states. They established the electoral college where smaller states had more equal footing with larger states. They did many things to take the edge out of democracy.

    But that isn’t what the millenials are complaining about, is it? They want a strong man running the country. Then why object to Trump? He gives the aura of a strong man. Or any of the retired generals Trump is appointing to his cabinet position? They are definitely strong men. But wait, they want a sensitive strong man. Does one exist? Can he stay sensitive as the national strong man? More importnatly, do these numb skulls have any idea what it is like living in a country run by a strong man?

    As I said at the beginning, these pampered mush for brains millenials are able to reject democracy from the comfort of a secure environment provided, ironically, by a strong democratic republic. I am reminded of the phrase I heard most of my adult life: “We can learn so much from the mouths of children.” Right! We can learn what comes from the mouths of spoiled brats who have never faced a hard time or a crisis in their lives.

    Somehow the term “grow up!” comes to mind.

  2. We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a plutocracy, which is why people are losing faith. Corporations have outsize influence writing the legislation that their bought and paid for senator or congressperson will introduce and vote for. When the little people voice their opinion, they get form letters.

  3. “Rich countries, after all, haven’t been able to deliver the kind of rising middle class standard of living that people have expected for a long time now. The simple story is that we had the best and most broadly-shared growth in recorded history in the quarter century between 1948 and 1973, but have fallen off since.”


    I’m just speaking to my own experiences as a 25 year old here, but I think part of the allure of someone like Bernie Sanders is that he is speaking to the real problems that a lot of people in my generation experience.

    When we have to deal with ‘entry level’ positions frequently requiring a 4-year degree and 2-3 years of experience in the field, when we have to deal with tuition being 4-5x what it was 25 years ago, rent prices are burgeoning steadily as most of the high-job cities continue to gentrify, healthcare costs being double what they were just 7 years ago and easily 5-10x what they were 25 years ago, and middle-class incomes stagnating, yes, we are hurting.

    And it’s not enough for the Democrats to stick their fingers in their ears and say some combination of ‘the economy is fine, just look at the aggregated GDP growth rates; you’re just whining’, ‘it’s either us or the Republicans, so you don’t get a say’, or ‘dealing with structural economic inequity is too hard and angers our owners, so we’re going to focus exclusively on social issues and civil rights to the detriment of economic matters’.

    Anyway, if the Democratic Party wants to have any relevance above the municipal level for the next 20 years, it needs to learn to speak to my generation on these issues and mobilize those of us who see the Democrats and Republicans as ‘six of one vs. half a dozen of the other’. Appointing Ellison to head the DNC would be a nice symbolic step of being open to changing in this regard.

    • The problem is that you and this liberal blog live in a false reality. Some simple economic facts:
      Median household income, in 2015 dollars:
      1973: 57,482

      Our median household income is 40% higher than France and the European Union. Yet, the cure advocated by this Blog are all things France, all things Bernie and all things Picketty: higher taxers, more regulation, restriction of trade.

      The stock market and the value of private corporations is up more than 2 trillion since election day. There is a reason: lower tax rates are coming and less regulation.

      After stagnating for a decade, incomes will be on the march again as long as Trump doesn’t mess around with trade too much, just deports the criminal illegal immigrants and doesn’t start a war.

      • “The stock market and the value of private corporations is up more than 2 trillion since election day. There is a reason: lower tax rates are coming and less regulation.”

        Which ultimately, means very little. Ownership of private corporations is concentrated very heavily among the top 5-10%. While a substantial fraction of Americans own at least $1 worth of stocks, the absolute amount of ownership in terms of wealth is not so well distributed.

        And while household incomes may be increasing, how much of that is because people are working longer hours – an average of 47 per week among full-time workers (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2014/09/02/the-average-work-week-is-now-47-hours/?utm_term=.d81aec702aeb)? Average weekly and hourly earnings both peaked in 1972, and have fallen considerably between then and the 1990’s, during the glory days of Ronnie “Union-Buster” Reagan’s tenure. (https://anticap.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/bn-hy153_realwa_g_20150417085212.jpg)

        What that suggests is that the only source of income growth today is mostly because national income has become more concentrated in corporate profits and less in wages. Turns out, that initial assessment is correct. Right after the 2001 recession, corporate profitability as a percentage of GDP has jumped, and has consistently (with the exception of the 2008 crash) been at 8-10%, higher than at any point during the preceding 50 years: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=cSh

        This wouldn’t be a problem, except that we know that inequality itself is a driver of dissatisfaction among people (see any number of psychological studies on relative income and happiness), as well as a drag on GDP. Why? Because as a share of income, people above a certain income threshold have proportionally lower levels of consumption. The drag on the economy resulting from the rise of income inequality has been estimated by economists at the IMF at 2-3%, or about 400 billion per year. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

        I’m also not sure where that >70,000 figure you’re pulling is coming from – I’m seeing inflation-adjusted 2015 dollar median incomes at around 57,000: https://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/2016/09/15/u-s-household-incomes-a-49-year-perspective

        The chart also shows that middle-incomes have stagnated-to-declined among middle-income families, while average incomes are being pulled up by obscene levels of growth among the top 5-10%.

        It’s also curious why growth rates were considerably higher on average from 2002 to 2014 than over the preceding five decades. 4-5% growth from 1950-2000 was not uncommon, whereas 2.5% is typical over the previous decade and a half. (See: http://www.multpl.com/us-real-gdp-growth-rate ) Tax rates don’t seem to explain the whole story – maximum tax rates were 50% during most of Reagan’s tenure, 70% during Carter’s, Ford’s, Nixon’s, and Johnson’s, and 91% prior to Kennedy’s.

        Ball’s in your court, Senator, to prove the unfounded assertion that lower taxes lead to higher levels of growth.

  4. we lost faith in the electoral collage a long time ago but its still here. same with democracy. democracy means listening to what the people want NOT what the liberal and conservative elitists think they SHOULD want.

Comments are closed.