Not long ago, liberal democracy was regarded by many as not just the best form of government, but the inevitable form of government. At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously called the end of history: democracy had won, everything else had failed.

In 2017, that view looks naive. New research warns that democracy’s fan base is shrinking, especially among younger people.

Falling out of love with democracy

In a paper published by Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne and Yascha Mounk of Harvard shows that the proportion of people who support “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections” has risen across the world over the past 25 years, in many cases considerably.

Image: The Economist

Foa and Mounk’s research shows that millennials have become less attached to the importance of voting. In 1995, only 16% of 16 to 24-year-old Americans believed that democracy was a bad way to run the country. By 2011, that share had increased to 24%.

Image: The Economist

Another chart, based on the same research, 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.

People who think it is ‘essential to live in a country that is governed democratically’

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.

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%.

Closing due to lack of interest?

There appears to be a growing lack of interest in politics amongst younger people which goes beyond the usual generational differences.

Image: Foa & Mouck/Economist/Journal of Democracy

People’s interest in politics has traditionally grown as they get older, and while that is still happening, young people are starting from a much lower level of interest.

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.

The report authors point out that the public dissatisfaction with democracy reflected in surveys across the US and Europe was also present in public surveys in countries such as Venezuela and Poland years before they faced serious challenges to established democratic norms.