More and more people in the West are losing faith in democracy. And the younger they are, the worse the trend.

Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, have published a study which looks at decades worth of data on attitudes towards democracy, revealing some alarming results.

People aren’t as supportive of democracy as they used to be

This chart, published in the New York Times, shows a systematic decline in the percentage of people who think that it is essential to live in a democracy, depending on what decade they were born in.

 How essential it is to live in a democracy, by age range
Image: New York Times

It shows that those born in the 1930s believe in democracy much more than those born in the 1980s. Some 72% of those born in the 1930s in America think democracy is absolutely essential. So do 55% of the same cohort in the Netherlands.

But the millennial generation (those born since 1980) has grown much more indifferent. For example, only one in three Dutch millennials says the same; in the United States, that number is slightly lower, around 30%.

“Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout,” say the authors of the study in an earlier paper.

Authoritarian rule

Younger people are more open to the alternatives to democracy, such as military rule.

Overall, more people thought democracy was a bad way to run a country in 2011 than in 1995. In 1995, only 16% of Americans born in the 1970s believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country.

In 2011 that figure went up to 20% – or one fifth.

Those born in the 1980s were even less enamoured with democracy – 24% of U.S. millennials considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country in 2011.

Europe showed a similar trend. In 2011, 13% of European youth aged 16 to 24 expressed such a view, up from 8% among the same age group in the mid-1990s.

 Beliefs in democracy
Image: Mounk/Foa 2016

Young people were also more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

43% of older Americans do not think that the military should be allowed to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job.

Amongst younger people the figure is much lower at 19%.

In Europe, the generation gap is somewhat less stark but equally clear, with 53% of older Europeans and only 36% of millennials strongly rejecting the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify having the army “take over”.

Young people aren’t as interested in politics

But young people are also increasingly less interested in politics than their older counterparts, as this chart shows.

 The Widening Political Apathy Gap
Image: Journal of Democracy

As people get older their interest in politics increased, but the opposite happened to the younger generation, which means the gap between them has increased.

The generation gap between older and younger Americans between 1990 and 2010 has widened from 10 to 26 percentage points. Among European respondents, the gap between young and old more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, from 4 to 14 percentage points.

Why are young people fed up?

What frustrates over half of 18-35 year olds about government leaders in their country, according to the World Economic Forum Global Shapers survey, is the abuse of power and corruption.

Levels of bureaucracy and administrative barriers and lack of accountability bother almost a third of young people. Insincerity and lack of action trouble a quarter of young people. One fifth felt that the government doesn’t understand them.

 Percentage of unique votes
Image: New York Times

Are democracies safe – for now?

The New York Times article concludes that, ultimately, like most forms of research, this is just one theory: “And the researchers’ approach, like all data-driven social science, has limitations. It is only as good as the survey data that underlies it, for instance, and it does not take into account other factors that could be important to overall stability, such as economic growth.

“At least one prominent political scientist argues that Mr Mounk’s and Mr Foa’s data is not as worrying as they believe it to be,” says the newspaper.

The authors, in their earlier paper, agree that much more research needs to be done to figure out what’s really happening to democracy.

However, they also warn that: “If we take the number of people who claim to endorse democracy at face value, no regime type in the history of mankind has held such universal and global appeal as democracy does today.

“Yet the reality of contemporary democracies looks rather less triumphant than this fact might suggest. Citizens of democracies are less and less content with their institutions.”