2016 Elections

Democracy Turns Off Millennials. It Doesn't Have To.

Many young people favor experts over politicians, yet they also swear by Bernie Sanders.

Still democrats.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump and his populist, nationalist counterparts in Europe are often portrayed as a threat to democracy. Their supporters argue that establishment politicians and technocrats are an even bigger threat because they listen only to the special interests that feed them. Could it be, then, that democracy in its current American and European forms is a threat to itself? There's evidence that it may be.

After assuring my U.S. readers that Trump's refusal to say he'll recognize the election results doesn't spell the end of the U.S. democratic tradition, I've received quite a few e-mails asking whether I thought U.S. democracy could survive Hillary Clinton. My correspondents -- members of the financial community who use Bloomberg terminals -- called her corrupt, a pathological liar, a purveyor of "banana republic politics." I can see where they're coming from: Fact-checking Clinton and keeping count of her dodges and omissions can be as exhausting as looking for grains of truth and good sense in Trump's incendiary rhetoric. Faced with two imperfect candidates, many people might be expected to ask themselves whether democracy works for them anymore. And people do.

In July, Roberto Stefan Foa, a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, published a paper with Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk pointing to disenchantment with democracy among millennials. It used responses from the World Values Survey, an ambitious sociological project aiming to describe the worldviews of people throughout the world and track their evolution. It shows that Americans born in the 1980s are less convinced of the value of democracy than the older generations. Younger Europeans, too, are losing faith in democracy, albeit not as dramatically.

democ
Source: World Values Survey

More than two thirds of American millennials do not consider it essential to live in a country that is governed democratically. About a quarter of them consider a democratic political system a "bad" or "very bad" way to run the country. At the same time, support for authoritarian alternatives is rising. In 1996, only 1 in 16 Americans said it would be good if the military ruled the country. By 2014, it was 1 in 6. Only 19 percent of millennials say it wouldn't be legitimate for the military to take over if the government proved incompetent or unable to do its job. A growing share of young people is in favor of a "strong leader who doesn't have to bother with parliament and elections" and a government of "experts" rather than politicians.

Foa and Mounk realized that their data looked counterintuitive, but all the trends they saw in it pointed in the authoritarian, anti-democratic direction. The researchers wondered if democracy wasn't "deconsolidating" even as it looks as stable as ever, the way Eastern Europe's Communist systems unexpectedly fell apart. They suggested that the shift in worldviews might threaten the validity of the oft-quoted conclusion by New York University's Adam Przeworski that not a single democracy with an average per capita income of $6,000 or more in 1985 dollars has ever collapsed.

Foa and Mounk wrote:

Far from showing that citizens have merely become more willing to criticize particular governments because their expectations of democracy have grown, this indicates a deep tension at the heart of contemporary politics: Even as democracy has come to be the only form of government widely viewed as legitimate, it has lost the trust of many citizens who no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their most pressing needs and preferences. The optimistic view that this decline in confidence merely represents a temporary downturn is no more than a pleasing assumption, based in part on a reluctance to call into question the vaunted stability of affluent democracies.

As a Russian citizen, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that they are right. President Vladimir Putin offers strong-arm rule and government by unelected technocratic experts, and this combination has proved far more popular than the 1990's attempt at democratic government, with fair elections and pluralism. All of that was seen as a worthless carnival, and few people miss competitive politics. It has to be said that Russian millennials are the age group that is the least fond of Putin -- but recent polls show about 78 percent of Russians aged 25 to 34 back him. 

It's not necessarily Russia's totalitarian heritage that made it so receptive to Putin after a decade's experiment with democracy. It could well be the growing belief in experts and strong leaders.

Last year, a team of young Georgian civil servants came to Ukraine to help it shed its Soviet legacy and implement liberal reforms. There were members of a team that had thoroughly changed Georgia after its 2003 Revolution of the Roses, under President Mikheil Saakashvili (who is now a regional governor in Ukraine). When I asked these reformers how they rated their chances of success, they complained that Ukraine's parliament was too powerful and there were too many political forces and special interests pushing and pulling them every possible way. In Georgia, they said, Saakashvili had been able to shield his team from such interference. They wished it were possible in Ukraine.

Most of them are gone from their government jobs now, having failed to change much. Ukraine's anarchic, noisy democracy turned out to be unworkable for these deeply anti-Soviet technocrats -- and for many of their Ukrainian peers who attempted reforms after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. 

Democracy isn't meritocratic enough for the Facebook generation, which deifies tech capitalists and social media stars. None of their heroes are elected. Democracy throws up people like Trump and Clinton, not Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. The proponents of raw democracy these days are anti-technocratic, like Michael Gove, Brexiter extraordinaire, who says Britons have "had enough of experts."

Young people assume there are other ways for a talented leader to get to the top than by rising through political ranks -- and the tech billionaires support that intuition by trying to bypass government as they fight disease (Zuckerberg) or prepare to colonize Mars (Musk). A world run by these well-meaning people wouldn't be democratic, though their support comes from below.

As I covered the U.S. presidential campaign, I saw much that appears to contradict Foa and Mounk's dire warnings. Bernie Sanders' movement, still alive despite his primary loss, has persuaded many young people that traditional politics can be used to further their goals. These millennials and younger Generation Z-ers follow a strong leader, and much of the grassroots campaigning they do is outside the political system as we know it -- but they don't seem drawn to authoritarianism or a government of "experts."

The Sanders movement is one reason why the data flagged by Foa and Mounk shouldn't lead to apocalyptic predictions about the future of democracy. Another is that in Europe, democracy isn't losing popularity as much as in the U.S. That may well reflect the difference in political cultures and electoral rules: European multiparty systems are more open and inclusive, and they provide representation to more people.

It may be that all that's needed to revive faith in democracy is to reform the electoral systems to be both more inclusive and more meritocratic, shifting attention from candidates' personalities and private lives to policies and issues. The rule changes needed for that don't have to be particularly drastic: something as simple as ranked-choice voting could lead to progress. If millennials feel they are represented by smart people who understand their agenda and have the necessary expertise to implement it, they may like politics better than they do now. And so may the older generations: They, too, are not immune from the irritation caused by crude election battles such as this year's.

(Corrects misspelling of Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk's surname in third, fifth, sixth, 13th and 14th paragraphs of article published Oct. 23.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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