The young are dissatisfied with democracy. More worryingly, they are more dissatisfied with democracy than previous generations were at the same age. This makes them inclined towards extreme politics of the left or right — which may, in turn, actively threaten democracy in future. Their objection to established ways of doing things is easy to understand. It is the result of failures in performance of many democracies. Reform and renewal are vital if liberal democracy is to thrive.
This evidence on attitudes comes from a new study, Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy, from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge university. It follows a report in January on global satisfaction with democracy, which concluded that democracy is in a “state of malaise” worldwide.
The new study, based on 43 sources covering 160 countries and 4.8m respondents, is still more depressing. The young, after all, are our future. If, as the study suggests, they are disenchanted with a political system for which so much blood was shed in the previous century, it may not have much of a future in this one. Indeed, this is suggested by the study’s main conclusions.
The first and most important is that the satisfaction of younger generations with democracy (especially “millennials”, born between 1981 and 1996) is not only declining over time, but was lower to start with than in earlier generations. This is especially true in western Europe, the “Anglo-Saxon” democracies (including the US and UK), Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Not surprisingly, a big contributor to discontent in high-income democracies is poor economic performance. In particular, “high levels of youth unemployment and wealth inequality are associated with rising dissatisfaction”. Moreover, that dissatisfaction has been rising not just absolutely, but faster than it rose in earlier generations.
In the emerging democracies of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe, we see serious signs of “transition fatigue”. The young do not remember the past struggles for democracy. But they do see the corruption and incompetence of today.
Young people are also attracted to populist leaders, partly because in western democracies they are more “ideological”, and less tolerant of respectful disagreement than previous generations. On average, states the study, those aged 18-34 show a 16 percentage-point increase in satisfaction with democracy during the first term of a populist, whether that populist is leftwing or rightwing. Donald Trump’s presidency has been an exception.
Yet, finally, with its hostility towards existing institutions and disagreement itself, populism tends to create a deep crisis of democratic legitimacy when it is actually in power.
We must not despair. While millennials do indeed become dissatisfied with democracy as they age, the fall has been only from 50 per cent to 45 per cent satisfaction. But, in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the decline in satisfaction has been 15 percentage points.
The combination of understandable disillusion with the populist delusion risks creating a cycle between demagogues able to blow things apart and moderate politicians incapable of putting them together again. Once a country has fallen into this trap, it is hard to escape: remember Argentina.
The warning is clear. We cannot risk running our societies for the benefit of the rich and old and stay confident that they will remain democratic. They must be seen to be run for the benefit of everybody. The calamity of Covid-19 underlines this truth. We must learn and act upon this understanding or risk falling into the abyss of demagoguery.