It’s probably time to start a new tag for posts like this called “total collapse in American civics.” We could put all of the threads on Trump’s conflicts of interest under that header too.
Go look at the main graph in this NYT story about a Harvard researcher who’s studying whether it’s true that societies that develop democratic institutions never really abandon them. It isn’t, as it turns out. Venezuela seemed to have developed a solidly pro-democratic culture 30 years ago and we all know how that’s going these days. The researcher’s task is to try to find ways to measure how committed a given society is to its civic institutions in order to gauge whether that commitment has slipped any over time. In particular, they looked at six western countries — the U.S., the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In all six, as a general rule, the younger a person is, the less likely he is to believe that it’s “essential” to live in a democracy. In the United States in particular, that rule is hard and fast: Starting with people born in the 1930s and then proceeding decade by decade, every new generation is steadily less inclined to say it’s “essential” than the generation before it. It’s a straight, steep slope downward. Among people born in the 30s, 75 percent or so say democracy is “essential.” By the time you get to people born in the 80s, just a bit more than … 25 percent say so.
And that’s not all:
According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis…
Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.
That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.
The public’s ever more primed to legitimize an anti-democratic regime and we just elected an authoritarian. Peachy keen. The last point in the excerpt is important, though. While it’s tempting to find something in U.S. culture specifically to explain the remorseless decline in Americans’ belief that democracy is “essential,” the same trend shows up in the other five countries. It’s a global thing (or a western thing, at least). How come? Has economic stagnation driven by the 2008 financial crisis turned westerners that deeply against their most basic institutions? If so, it’s hard to square how people born during the Great Depression are more pro-democracy than millennials are — although World War II might have something to do with that. Could be there’s an element of multiculturalism driving this, with younger generations less inclined to dismiss out of hand the possibility that a system that “works” for China, say, might also work for them. (And some members of older generations too. Just ask Tom Friedman.) Or maybe this is part of a deeper sense that more … efficient forms of government than lumbering democracies are needed to solve some of the west’s intractable problems. It’s hard to read the NYT story and not think of the polls showing that 40 percent of millennials think government should be able to stop people from offending minority groups or that a clear majority of Democrats want to criminalize “hate speech.” That’s hard to do in a democracy, but not as hard in a “benevolent” authoritarian regime.
It’s unfair to pawn this all off on the left, though, even though it’s true that younger adults in the U.S. and abroad lean left. The soon-to-be president who was tweeting about revoking people’s citizenship for flag-burning ain’t a Democrat, after all. (Well, not officially, I mean.) It may be that, having lost so many culture wars over the past 50 years, younger right-wingers are also increasingly open to the idea of the “right kind” of authoritarian undoing the left’s gains suddenly, in one fell swoop. That’s what the reactionaries in the alt-right wing of Trump’s base want, no? It’s also possible that young adults in the west are more open to experimenting with non-democratic systems simply because they’re so far removed from an age when democracy wasn’t a given. If you haven’t had hard lessons recently in how a society without democratic accountability tends to function, why wouldn’t you be more inclined to roll the dice and see if you can come up with something better? I do find it odd, though, that the generations that are most familiar with the Internet and that use it as a tool for all facets of life also seem to be the ones least likely to see democracy as “essential.” The Internet was touted early on as a democratizing influence — more media alternatives, costless platforms for the average joe to air his views, and so on. You would think that would reinforce the sense that democracy in governance is “essential.” Evidently not.
Bad times ahead, needless to say. Here’s an op-ed by the Harvard researcher, Yascha Mounk, published in late October listing three reasons why U.S. institutions might prove surprisingly feeble in resisting President Trump, in the very unlikely event that Trump ended up defeating Hillary Clinton in November.