The Fate of Democracy!

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Half of my students think that democracy has some serious problems. That’s the conclusion I drew after grading 32 essays in response to the question, “Is democracy the best form of government?” About half of the essays answered, in one way or another, no.

That result seems to be in line with Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk’s conclusions, which were recently reviewed in an article in The New York Times. After reading that article, I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:

“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.”

Young people are more likely than old people to find fault with democracy, and more likely, too, to give military takeover a pass. After making the young people in my class read the article, we focused on the paragraph quoted above, and asked ourselves the following question:

How can historical context explain this phenomenon?

I wrote about our own generational historical context earlier: some of this may come simply from the disillusionment that I think is prevalent among people in my age range.

But my students came to the conclusion that there’s a point to be made about inexperience, too: our parents and grandparents are more likely to have encountered totalitarian, authoritarian, or autocratic rule at some point in their lives, and they have seen (either firsthand or on the network TV channels that everyone watched way back when) the horrifying results that those regimes can bring about. My 93-year-old neighbor fought in the Battle of the Bulge. My parents and their friends lived through the Cold War. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, etc. rose and fell during the mid-20th century, well before my memory begins. American-born millenials have not in general lived through the immediate horror of dictatorship and rule by a single-party state (many of our counterparts abroad have not been so fortunate). For us, learning history (or paying attention to the news, which you should pay for by the way!) is the only tool we have to understand how fortunate we are, in the grand scheme of things, to live under a democratic system—flawed though our current version may be. I would also argue that this is an obvious reason we should be welcoming refugee populations to the United States: wouldn’t one’s exposure to their alternatives make one more likely to defend the institutions of democratic government?

I was very proud of my students for recognizing that the young people surveyed were able to declare their dissatisfaction precisely because they live in a liberal democracy. Were the military rule they see as, at least, “not-illegitimate,” to come to pass, they might not be so lucky. The system ought to be improved from within—let’s not let the proverbial baby get thrown out with the bathwater.

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