Wednesday, 29 November 2023 04:44

Young Americans are losing faith in democracy

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There is a quiet revolution going on among the younger generation in this country, marked by a dramatic erosion of support for America’s constitutional democracy. 

The younger generation has good reason to be disillusioned with democracy. People in their 20s and 30s have grown up in an era marked by one crisis after another, including the attacks on 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008, escalating climate disasters, growing economic inequality, and the Covid pandemic.  

American government also has seemed paralyzed and/or unwilling to do the things necessary to respond to the everyday problems of ordinary Americans. While older Americans either lived through or knew well democracy’s triumphs, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the younger generation associates democracy with polarization and gridlock.  

There is plenty of blame to go around.  

Our democratic institutions have done little to address issues about which the younger generation is very concerned, including the epidemic of gun violence, systemic racism, homelessness and global warming. The current war in the Middle East is just the latest headline-grabbing event that is shaking young people’s faith in the way American democracy is responding.  

Part of the blame for youthful disillusionment rests with educators at all levels, who have for too long failed to be advocates for democracy. Afraid of being caught up in culture wars or seen as politically incorrect apologists for racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, they have given up on civic education. Only seven states now require a full year of civics in the K-12 curriculum. 

All of us, but especially those of us who teach, need to do our part. The erosion of support for democracy requires urgent attention and a clear strategy to alert young people to the dangers of their skepticism about democratic institutions.  

The warning signs are plentiful, but so far they have not aroused the concern that they warrant. Let’s look at some of those signs. 

In December 2021, a study of young people conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics showed that 52 percent “believe that the country’s democracy is either ‘in trouble’ or ‘a failed democracy.’” Just 7 percent said that democracy in the United States is “healthy.” Another poll, also conducted two years ago, found that “Not only do younger Americans express greater skepticism about American democracy, their doubts extend to feelings about being American and whether the US serves as a moral example in the world.”

Younger Americans, it turns out, “express far less pride in their nationality than older Americans…. (S)eniors are more than twice as likely as young adults to say they are extremely proud to be American (23 percent vs. 55 percent).”  

A more recent study of the civic outlook of younger voters notes that “Young adults are dissatisfied with our political system (57%), and most have no or little trust in government institutions (52%).” Fewer than half (48%) plan to vote in the next general election, compared to about two-thirds of the general public.”  

Most alarmingly, that study found that “Young adults, regardless of education level, lack basic civic knowledge.” 

Another study, published in June of this year, shows that “Only one in four Americans between 18 and 39 years old is a consistent supporter of democracy—a full 16 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.”   

Other research concludes that “nearly two-thirds of young Americans have more fear than hope about the future of democracy in America.” Many of them also don’t think that democracy is necessary for them to have things that they value, like freedom, community and social justice.  

That may be why the Brookings Institution found that “29 percent of… young Americans say that democracy is not always preferable to other political forms, a far higher share than older Americans, who can remember the Cold War and even the fight against fascism in World War II.” Some of the young people who are disillusioned with democracy believe that a “strong leader who does not heed election results or acknowledge congressional authority is acceptable. Others say a non-democratic government can be preferable to real democracy. Some assert that democracy is a bad way to govern the United States.” 

But the erosion of support for democracy among young people is not just an American problem.  As Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, puts it, “Democratic backsliding has become a global trend. Amid this environment comes a rash of statistics suggesting that the world’s young people are increasingly disengaged from political life: they’re voting less, rejecting party membership, and telling researchers that their country’s leaders aren’t working in their interests.” 

A September 2023 survey of people in 30 countries found that 86 percent of its respondents “prefer to live in a democratic state and only 20% believe authoritarian regimes are more capable of delivering ‘what citizens want.’ However, only 57% of respondents aged 18 to 35 felt democracy was preferable to any other form of government, against 71% of those over 56, and 42% of younger people said they were supportive of military rule, against just 20% of older respondents.” 

Back in this country, 55 percent of young people currently believe that “the country is heading in the wrong direction, with 16 percent saying it’s on the right track and the rest (28%) saying they’re not sure.”  

Many younger voters are also “concerned about the country’s values and distrustful of major institutions. Nearly two-thirds of young people (62%) expressed concern about the values of the American people, and 45% said they believe that the country is failing to live up to its promises of freedom and fairness, compared to just 18% who believe the country has lived up to these promises.”   

What all this research means is that, as Mark Malloch Brown, president of the Open Society Foundation and a former United Nations deputy secretary general, explains, “Generation by generation…faith (in democracy) is fading as doubts grow about its ability to deliver concrete changes to their lives.” 

We must act now to arrest this troubling trend. We can and should own up to democracy’s failures and the need for improvement. It is clear that those of us who teach must become democracy’s active advocates. We must make sure our students understand that, as Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the rest.” 

At Amherst College, where I teach, such efforts are underway. We have launched a new initiative, titled “Thinking Democratically,” to seed the college’s offerings with courses about the history and current status of democracy in the United States and other nations. Students here also are beginning to take up democracy’s cause. They have created a new group, Amherst Students for Democracy, which has launched a campaign to get their peers to pledge to work with organizations dedicated to the preservation and improvement of democracy. More than 300 students have already taken that pledge.

These are small, but nonetheless significant, steps that deserve to be imitated around the country. They are one acknowledgement of the wisdom of what the philosopher John Dewey said more than a century ago: “Democracy has to be reborn every generation, and education is its midwife.”  

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College. 


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