The time bomb ticking away at the heart of democracy

Matthew MacWilliams
Global Public Opinion Strategist, Comms Hub

Consider this: What happens if democracy is not reborn every generation?

If consistent support for democracy is actually falling among youth in Europe and the United States and is already lower than their parents and grandparents, what are the odds democracy will continue into the future?

What does the future hold for democratic governance? If democracy is not reborn with each new generation, democracy will be hollowed out or die off in the next few decades, no matter the outcomes of the 2024 elections in Europe and the United States. The clear, present, and immediate threats to democracy around the globe, growing since Francis Fukuyama prematurely declared that democracy was triumphant in 1992, have finally been recognized.

Political and other elites who flaunt the guardrails of democracy are dismantling them without concern for the consequence. The endless river of disinformation floods public discourse until the truth is obscured and facts are uncertain. The unfettered polarization divides citizens into warring, tribal teams. Additionally, a tide of authoritarianism and obedience to majoritarian norms is gaining momentum, appealing to those who favor decisive rule over the democratic ideals of compromise and shared responsibility.

These are the immediate, pressing challenges confronting democracies across the globe. For better or worse, the next battle in this confrontation between democracy and autocracy will play out in the 2024 elections across the world. But these episodic elections are one of two threats challenging the future of democracy globally. And the second threat, unrecognized and corrosive, is neither episodic nor transitory. It is structural, systemic, and dangerous. It is the growing inconsistency of support for democracy that is exacerbated by demographic succession.

Democracy never last long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
John Quincy Adams, 1814

The youth perspective on democracy

In America today, just 41% of those 18 years of age and older are consistent supporters of democracy. The rest of Americans – a 59% majority – are inconsistent supporters of democracy. Some of them think that a strong leader who does not heed election results or accept Congressional power is acceptable. Others say a non-democratic government can be preferable to real democracy. Some assert that democracy is a bad way of governing the United States. And a few agree with more than one of these three notions that indicates inconsistent support for democracy.

Inconsistent support for democracy is not a problem confined to the United States. From national surveys conducted in 2022 by the European Movement International as part of its work with Comms Hub, we know that consistency of support among citizens 18+ is less than a majority in all nine European countries surveyed. Consistent support for democracy in these countries ranges from an average high of 48% in Finland to a low of 22% in Romania.

Critically, we also know that in seven of these nine countries – Romania, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Greece, France, and Finland – support for democracy is statistically lower among younger citizens (18–29-year-olds), than older citizens. This mirrors the quantitative findings from the United States.

How big a problem is this? Consider the data from America.

Only one in four Americans between 18 and 39 years old is a consistent supporter of democracy – a full sixteen percentage points below the mean support score for all citizens of voting age. By comparison, 65% of America’s septuagenarians and their Greatest and Silent Generation brethren support democracy consistently.

Think about this data.

If approximately three-quarters of Americans 18-39 years of age do not consistently support fundamental democratic tenets, what are the odds, as these younger citizens age and replace their more supportive parents, of democracy surviving? Because if these 18-39 Americans remain inconsistent supporters of democracy as they age, and the generation that follows them into adulthood is as skeptical about democracy’s merits as they are, then, over time, the base of consistent supporters for democracy in the United States will inevitably decline. This demographic succession, where more consistent supporters of democracy are replaced by those who are less consistent, is a demographic time bomb ticking away next to the heart of American democracy. Surveys show that the same demographic dynamics are also present in Europe.

Now, it is possible that as younger Americans and Europeans age, they will become more supportive of democracy. But, with political polarization at a zenith and trust in institutions a nadir, how likely is that possibility?

And what about Gen Alpha and younger Gen Z? With public education in civics in America more mirage than reality and civic life more toxic than inspiring, how likely are younger people on both sides of the Atlantic, as they reach voting age, to be more consistent supporters of democracy than today’s 18-39-year-olds?

Hypothetically, younger Gen Z and Gen Alpha Americans will add to the crisis of waning public support for democracy in the United States and Europe in the next ten years as they reach voting age. Yet, in the United States, we lack basic data and information on the scope and shape of this potential problem with 10-17-year-olds to know if it is real or a chimaera. And in Europe, information about the inconsistency of support for democracy among younger Europeans, as well as citizens of voting age, is even more lacking.

Demographic succession is a hypothesis for now. The ticking time bomb it could produce is not.

It is a simple insight which concludes that the farther the consistent base of support for democracy falls in the United States and Europe, the greater the likelihood that democracy can be further hollowed out by demagogues seeking power unconstrained by democratic rules and norms.

Demography need not be destiny, but without understanding and intervention based on learning, it is a very probable outcome of the low levels of support for democracy extant today in the American and European public.

At Comms Hub, we recognize the urgency of reversing this trend.

Understanding the scope of this problem and the why behind it, and from this learning, developing real solutions to reverse it, is not a luxury, it is an essential component of rebuilding democracy. It is one of the central problems we are working to understand and solve at Comms Hub. Our work is focused on understanding the complexities behind these attitudes and developing data-driven communication strategies that resonate with both young and old. We aim to cultivate an informed, engaged public that values and defends democratic principles.

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