Global Millennials: Down on Democracy and Drawn to Populism
Across the globe, Millennials are less satisfied with democracy than any other age group. A new study finds that youth satisfaction with democracy has steadily declined since the early 2000s—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the view of older generations (Xers, Boomers, and Silent) when they were the same age.
I don’t exaggerate here: This is an extremely important and powerful report.
To begin with, the amount of survey data this team has combined and pooled—from 4.8 million respondents gathered from 43 sources in 160 countries between 1973 and 2020—is staggering beyond measure. Here we see big data in action. And then there’s the team’s sweeping conclusion: “We find that across the globe, younger generations have become steadily more dissatisfied with democracy—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to older cohorts at comparable stages of life.”
Why is this important? Because it flies in the face of much lazy media reporting, which often gives the impression that pro-democracy young people around the world are fighting to prevent older, anti-democracy populists from taking over. In fact, says this report, it’s younger people who are generally most enthusiastic about anti-democratic populism, on both the left and the right, and who are the happiest when it wins.
When I raised this possibility three years ago (in “Are Millennials Giving Up on Democracy”), I cited World Value Survey survey data showing that Millennials are less attached to democracy by a variety of measures than older generations, both over time and at the same age. Much of this data was jointly assembled by two young professors: Yascha Mounk, now at Johns Hopkins; and Roberto Foa, now at Cambridge.
Mounk has since written more extensively on this trend in The People Vs. Democracy (2018), wherein he shows that Millennials worldwide are the least attached to democracy and the most attracted to authoritarian alternatives. Nearly two-thirds of Silent and Boomer Americans, for example, believe “it’s essential to live in a democracy,” versus less than one-third of Millennials. And when asked if they favored “a strong leader, not parliament and elections” (this wording was for a global audience!), nearly half of first-wave Millennials agreed in 2011, versus only about a quarter of first-wave Xers at roughly the same age in 1995.
When Mounk and Foa first expounded their thesis in 2016, it attracted many critics. Among these was Ronald Inglehart, the celebrated emeritus professor at Michigan who directs the World Values and whose “generational theory” of political values holds that voter attitudes toward democracy should only move in one direction over time—toward greater support. For an illuminating back-and-forth between Mounk and Foa (both Millennials) and Inglehart (Silent), see this exchange in The Journal of Democracy. Over the last few years, I think it’s fair to say that the Mounk-Foa thesis has steadily gained more support.
As for Foa, he has since moved to Cambridge, where he now directs the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research and co-directs the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy. Earlier this year, the Centre for the Future of Democracy released a report (“Global Satisfaction with Democracy: 2020”) that looked at top-line global survey data. It showed that voters around the world—most recently, in the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria—were increasingly dissatisfied with democracy. The authors conclude that, in retrospect, the year 2005 marked “the beginning of a global democratic recession.”
Now, in their current report (“Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy”), Foa and his team re-examine all the data by age and generation. What they find is that the rising generation constitutes the leading indicator of this global democratic recession. While I can’t summarize here all of the report’s findings, a few highlights are worth flagging.
First, let’s look at each global generation’s satisfaction with democracy since 1995. Note that the Silent Generation’s strong attachment to democracy has hardly been touched. But that attachment begins to wilt as you move younger. For Millennials it has fallen very sharply.
Second, in each year, let’s subtract the Boomers’ satisfaction with democracy from the Millennials’. It’s gone down over time for both generations. But how much faster for Millennials? Overall, as we can see, Millennials were more optimistic about democracy before 2005, but have been less optimistic since.
This overall picture, however, is deceptive. It mixes all 75 countries together (every one of them democracies, at least nominally). Yet we may easily expect that the Millennials’ relative enthusiasm about democracy might be a lot higher in some countries than in others. We may expect it to be higher, for example, where authoritarians were recently in charge and new regimes are in play. This might include much of East Asia and central and eastern Europe—and even Germany after the addition of “Ossis” in 1991. And we might expect it to be a lot lower in countries having the longest and most secure histories as liberal democracies. These would certainly include the Anglo-Saxon democracies, such as the US, UK, Australia, and Canada.
So let’s pull all the countries apart. We do just that in the third and fourth charts where we look at the average spread between generations in democratic satisfaction. And what we find, as expected, is that all of the Anglo-Saxon democracies (except New Zealand) show a wider-than-average democracy deficit. In the US and Australia, it’s much wider than the global average (by roughly 15 percentage points), along with several Latin American countries and two southern European countries (Spain and Greece).
Here let’s take a closer look, by generation, at satisfaction with democracy in just the Anglo-Saxon democracies. The decline for Millennials (along with Gen-Xers, though at an older age) practically falls off a cliff.
Interestingly, those countries with the largest generational gaps in democratic satisfaction also tend to have the largest generational gaps in the percent who agree that “you can tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics.” The authors point out: “Across western democracies, younger generations are significantly more ‘Manichaean’—seeing political opponents as inherently morally flawed.”
OK, now let’s change gears. What actually causes some countries to have wider generational deficits in democracy than others? The authors explore many possible drivers. Those that work best track economic inequality between age brackets—for example, the gap between the income or wealth or unemployment of the youngest versus the oldest working-age adults. One indicator that tracks all of these pretty well is a country’s overall income inequality 25 years prior.
Finally, Foa’s team addresses this obvious question: So what happens to youth views of democracy when real populists run in a national election against moderates or technocrats? What happens if the populist wins? And what happens if he or she loses? The authors look at dozens of such elections since 2005 and examine views by age for four years thereafter. They find, overwhelmingly, that a populist victory is followed by a sizeable and sustained rise in youth confidence in democracy. And they find that a populist defeat (and “moderate” victory) is followed by a flat or declining path in youth confidence.
Here are trends for all such elections since the “populist wave” of 2015.
The authors find that it really doesn’t matter whether the populists are on the left or the right. Sure, youth confidence in democracy rose after the victories of Syriza (Greece) in 2015, AMLO (Mexico) in 2018, and Podemos (Spain) in 2019. But it rose equally after the victories of Law and Justice (Poland) in 2015, Duterte (Philippines) in 2016, Babiš (Czechia) in 2018, and Bolsonaro (Brazil) in 2019. And it rose buoyantly when both the left-wing and right-wing populists won at the same time, as with Lega and 5 Star (Italy) in 2018.
Consider, on the other hand, victories against populists by all those moderate or “third way” technocrats, even the ones initially hailed as sexy youth icons—like Matteo Renzi (Italy) in 2011, Mauricio Macri (Argentina) in 2015, or Emmanuel Macron (France) in 2018. They didn’t end up polling well in any age bracket, and youth confidence in democracy tanked over their tenure. Macron, to be sure, is still a work in progress.
There are exceptions. In Greece, the 2019 victory of New Democracy installed the technocrat Kyriakos Mitsotakis as prime minister. And thus far the democratic confidence of Greek youth has surged.
A more glaring exception, which the authors acknowledge, is Donald Trump. Here is a populist who beat a technocratic moderate (Hillary Clinton) in 2016. And the democratic confidence of American youth, while not falling further to date, has not risen much either. UK’s PM Boris Johnson may ultimately fall into the same category, though not enough time has passed for the authors to pass judgment.
What makes Trump and (perhaps) Johnson exceptional? First, and most obviously, these two leaders were elected over the strong objections of young voters, unlike nearly every other instance of (left-wing or right-wing) populist victory.
Second—and this is a sign of how far democratic confidence has fallen in the Anglo-Saxon democracies—both the US and the UK featured viable populist candidacies on both the left and the right. On the left in the UK was Jeremy Corbyn, who eschews Tony Blairism and practically embodies the doctrinaire populism of the far left. On the left in the US was Bernie Sanders, whose top-down “democratic socialist” reforms have drawn the entire Democratic party leftward over the past four years. Corbyn and Sanders, populists both, have attracted tremendous enthusiasm from young people in the UK and US.
Few other countries are experiencing such strong populist waves at both ends of the spectrum. France comes close—which explains why Macron gets attacked so savagely by both sides. Spain may get there, if both Vox and Podemos grow larger. And Italy may already be suffering from this affliction: Lega and 5 Star both receive disproportionate support from young voters.
Any immediate take-aways for Americans looking ahead to the coming national election? Perhaps only this. While the journeyman centrist Joe Biden is sure to attract a very large majority of the Millennials’ votes next week, don’t imagine that they will stick with him long unless he moves much further toward the Sanders-Warren agenda. That tension within the Democratic Party, between aging moderates and younger collectivists, promises to become a central drama within the Biden presidency.