November 2, 2020

Are young people a threat to our very way of life? Old fogeys throughout history have thought so and usually they’ve been wrong. But right now there is something we should be worried about, which is the mounting evidence that young people are turning against democracy.

The latest study to show this, drawing upon literally thousands of surveys and distilled into a report from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, makes for a troubling read, just as Americans prepare to vote in their 59th presidential election.

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Not only do we see satisfaction with democracy falling over the period covered by the dataset (1973 to 2020), it’s also the case that each generation is less satisfied than its predecessor. Thus the oldest group surveyed — people born between 1918 and 1944 (like Joe Biden) — are the happiest, while right at the bottom of the scale are the miserable Millennials (1981-1996).

While the scale of the decline doesn’t look too precipitous, in some parts of the world it is much steeper, and nowhere more so than in the English-speaking countries. There, in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, satisfaction levels plunge down through the generations from almost 80% to a shade over 50%.

There’s no denying the depth of this crisis, and degree of youth dissatisfaction with democracy is something we need to take very seriously indeed. But perhaps the problem isn’t with democracy — it’s with the youth.

I’m not saying they’ve got nothing to complain about. They’ve been saddled with student debt, the housing crisis and a rapidly warming planet. (Then again, 40 years ago there was the prospect of nuclear war to worry about, plus 3 million on the dole and university was for the few not the many.)

So it may be that the word “democracy” is being read as a shorthand for politics in general, the government of the day or the capitalist system. That would be a less alarming interpretation — but if you dig deeper into these surveys it becomes clear that the disenchantment isn’t just with the state of the world, it’s with the principle of democracy itself.

For instance, a 2018 report from the the Onward think tank found that significantly more young people than old thought that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament” is a “good way to run the country”. At the time, I wrote that this finding should be interpreted in the context of Theresa May’s failing premiership and the Brexit logjam. That said, the same survey found that 35% of under-35s thought that having the army rule the country is a good idea compared to only 15% of over-65s. That looks pretty authoritarian to me.

The political scientist Yascha Mounk has documented similar trends in several countries, including significantly higher levels of younger voters who thought that having a democratic system was “bad” or “very bad”. It should be said that we’re still talking about a minority — just over 15% in the UK (for people born in the 1980s). However, this compares to much small percentages for earlier generations.

The same research shows growing radicalisation among young people, with increasing numbers identifying with the extreme Left or radical Right. This isn’t only a symptom of their disenchantment with democracy, it might also indicate where they’re getting their anti-democratic ideas from.

The radical Left has never liked the democracy we’ve got. It is, they claim, a sham system manipulated by the interests of capital (or some other favourite bugbear like “whiteness” or the “patriarchy”). Hence slogans like “don’t vote, it only encourages them” and “use your cross, crucify a politician”.

Various alternatives have been proposed. The dictatorship of the proletariat isn’t quite so fashionable these days — and certainly not since the proles were cancelled for voting Leave; but there are alternatives to this alternative. For instance, the participatory anarchism of the Occupy movement. Then there was whatever Russell Brand was going on about before he decided that voting wasn’t such a bad thing after all. 

Last year, one of the “demands” made by Extinction Rebellion (XR) is that “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” A Citizens’ Assembly, by the way, is an overgrown focus group — only with the power to bypass elected parliaments. The “electoral system”, says XR, is “incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency”.

The city of Seattle played host to another radical experiment this year, as part of the BLM protests. Back in June, the police withdrew from several blocks allowing protestors to establish the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. This territory was governed through consensus decision-making and bottom-up initiatives like the construction of a community vegetable garden. A number of shootings later, the police moved back in and the CHAZ was dismantled.

There is plenty of anti-democratic posturing on the radical Right, too — and not just from the outright fascists. Other flavours include neo-feudalism, various kinds of theocracy and ultra-libertarian set-ups where there’s no voting because there’s no government.

These are fringe movements, and their ideas irrelevant to mainstream politics — or at least, they were. What’s changed is that the democratic West now faces serious competition from authoritarian regimes around the world. Gone are the days when the superiority of the free world could be demonstrated in terms of its material achievements. Just look at China with its awe-inspiring hi-tech infrastructure! Gaze in wonder as dazzling cities emerge from the deserts of the Gulf! Cower in fear as Vladimir Putin rebuilds the Russian empire! The autocracies are on the front foot; the West is in retreat.

Covid has only encouraged this dangerous inferiority complex, so that while Europe and America are still struggling, China crushed its outbreak with ruthless efficiency.

Yet China is not the only country to have crushed the curve, and some of the most effective responses were mounted by democratic nations like Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand. Alternatively, it may be that the Swedish approach is ultimately proven to be the correct one. It’s too early to tell, but the truth will out — thanks to the accountability and transparency of the democratic system. Democracies get things wrong all the time, but they have the capacity to learn from their mistakes and change accordingly.

And China’s achievements may not be all they seem. Back in the days of the (first) Cold War it often looked like the Soviets were pulling ahead — for instance in the space race — and there were plenty of useful idiots in the West willing to take their propaganda at face value, while ignoring the essential rottenness of the system. Today’s useful idiots are doing exactly the same in regard to China and the other glittering dictatorships, and while it may take decades for the rot to finally bring down the system, it will happen because, in the absence of timely reform, it always does.

The case for democracy is as compelling as it ever was, but it has to be made afresh. We cannot assume that each new generation will simply absorb the lessons of history. Furthermore, democrats must confront the Left’s utopian fantasies and Right’s worship of power and wealth for its own sake.

Yet while this is a fight that should be led from the centre, I wonder if our liberals and moderates are up to the job. Indeed, I worry that it is the centrists, from unreconstructed free marketeers to progressive enthusiasts for a European superstate, who are a bigger threat to democracy than the radicals are.

To advance their vision of technocratic governance and a borderless world, centrists are quite happy to constrain the democracy they claim to be in favour of. Hence the unquestioned support for independent central banks so that “politics” (i.e. democracy) can be kept out of monetary policy; or the binding provisions of free trade agreements so that “politics” (i.e. democracy) doesn’t disrupt big business; or the “four freedoms” of the Single Market, that subordinates “national politics” (i.e. democracy) so that goods, services, capital and people can cross borders unimpeded.

In 2016, the British people decided they’d had enough. They voted to take back control, which was when the “moderates” showed us their true colours. It wasn’t just the all-out attempt to overturn the result of the referendum, but also the condescension directed at those who’d dared to defy the establishment.

Richard Dawkins was typical of his class in declaring that the “general public” were “not qualified” to take the decision they did. He also appeared to suggest that a test of “reasoning ability or knowledge” should be applied to the franchise. If that’s what he meant, then it’s a challenge to the principle of one person, one vote. But then that’s not such a controversial position these days.

The idea of an epistocracy — i.e. rule by the knowledgeable — goes all the way back to Plato. More recently, the idea that we need a more “rational” alternative to democracy as we know it has come back into vogue thanks to books such as The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007) by Bryan Caplan and Against Democracy (2016) by Jason Brennan. These are not fringe authors; both books were published by Princeton University Press and were extensively and respectfully reviewed.

So democracy is losing the battle of ideas, but more importantly it is also losing the battle of attitudes.

If the process of disenchantment has gone furthest among younger people in Anglo-Saxon countries, then that’s surely no coincidence. Here we have the most individualistic of generations in the most individualistic part of the world. And that gets us to the heart of the matter. The anti-democratic spirit of the age doesn’t come from some desire for self-abasement, rather it’s an expression of colossal self-regard.

This takes many forms, but for the “knowledge class” it’s the fallacy that their kind of knowledge is superior to all others — thus entitling a tenured professor to a bigger say than a shopkeeper or a bus driver. For the central bankers and other assorted technocrats it’s the delusion that only they can steer the ship of state — despite their record of running it aground on multiple occasions. For ideologues of Left, Right and Centre it’s all about purity. If they and their comrades are in sole possession of the truth, then why should they be impeded by the wrongthink of the enemy?