Democracy Risks Losing Young People | Opinion

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The reports of democracy’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Most people around the world still want to live in democratic societies. They believe that the system can improve their lives and solve common problems. They also strongly tend to the view that governments should uphold citizens’ individual rights irrespective of appearance, religion, sexual or gender orientation. At the global level, they want more international cooperation and stronger institutions. In other words: They still have faith in democratic and multilateralist ideals.

That is the good news from one of the largest global polling reports on human rights and democracy. Published recently, the Open Society Barometer, which compiled public opinion data from 30 countries, painted what may be a surprisingly upbeat picture about the global public’s adherence to democratic principles in an age when these are often said to be in crisis. For example, 86 percent of respondents said they want to live in a democracy and only 20 percent believe that authoritarian countries are more likely than democratic ones to deliver what citizens want.

The bad news, however, is that this faith appears to be weakening. Where 71 percent of respondents aged 56 and above said that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, among those in the 18-35 age group the proportion drops to just 57 percent. A similar if less pronounced pattern is observed in support for «strong» leaders who do away with assemblies and elections: with 26 percent of the older group backing this model but 35 percent of the youngest one doing so. The respective figures supportive of army rule are 20 percent and 42 percent.

Voting booths are seen.
MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

Let that sink in: over two in five young people in a representative sample of countries around the world do not see democracy as the best form of government, and over two in five also express support for some form of military control. That suggests that the grip of democratic ideals and principles is loosening generation-by-generation, a finding that should alarm—but perhaps not surprise us. After all, those aged between 18 and 35 have grown up and been politicized as the age of «poly-crises»—during which climate, economic, technological, and geopolitical turmoil have grown and reinforced each other to a degree never seen before.

The poll provided glimpses of that turmoil, with respondents across the sample professing high levels of concern about political violence, food costs, climate change, and corruption. It is to be expected that this should generate a new turn toward rival models of government promising strong leadership—even if the reality of many authoritarian states suggests that this is less, not more, effective than the democratic model.

What to do? One thing I have observed over a career that has spanned government, development, and human rights is that no system or governing idea can run on abstract ideals alone. Democracy’s power and legitimacy rests on people’s confidence that it can improve their lives—both upholding their freedoms and generating greater material well-being.

Heading off the creeping disillusionment with democratic government and some of its fundamental principles among younger people means restoring that confidence by showing that it can deliver safer streets, more housing, better education and health services, and more affordable food and energy. That task—retooling states and societies to meet peoples’ needs more effectively—is the one before all those of us who want to defend democracy and make it secure for generations to come.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former U.N. deputy secretary general, is president of the Open Society Foundations.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.


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