By Saeculum Research
Young people’s declining faith in democracy and public institutions reveals a deep desire for radical change.
At age 39, the newly elected Emmanuel Macron is the youngest president in the history of France. He’s younger, in fact, than most of his voters: French Millennials, eager for radical change, were more likely to prefer either the far-left or far-right candidate to the centrist Macron. And they’re not alone. Across Europe and the United States, support for anti-establishment candidates is rising as young people’s attitudes toward liberal democracy and centrist candidates are souring and their trust in public institutions continues sliding. Though political disaffection has been growing among all age groups, there are real differences in how younger and older generations view politics that reflect their respective phases of life and divergent views of government—and point to a broad desire among Millennials for security and simplicity in all areas of their lives.
The election results in France point to a youth insurgency that has boosted parties and candidates at the political extremes around Europe. Although Macron defeated the far-right Marine Le Pen in every age group, Le Pen achieved solid support among younger voters. She secured 34 percent of the vote among 18- to 24-year-olds and 40 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds. By contrast, she won just 27 percent of the vote among the 65+. In the first round of elections, the far left also fared well among youth: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (a Hugo Chávez fan who favors 100 percent tax rates on the rich) captured a larger share of the vote than Le Pen or Macron among late-wave Millennials, and trailed Macron by only 4 percentage points among early-wave Millennials.
The radicalism of young French voters isn’t unique. Events like Brexit and President Trump’s win left many Americans with the impression that populism is a phenomenon fueled by older generations that will fade with time. But this is off the mark. Populism is both right-wing and left-wing. Like their counterparts across the pond, American Millennials in the last election flocked to a fringe candidate promising revolution: Bernie Sanders.
The rise of extreme candidates follows several studies indicating that youth from long-standing democracies are losing faith in the system. According to research from political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, only about 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s “essential” to live in a democracy. That’s compared to 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s. Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Britain reported similar gaps. In another study of European Millennials, only 32 percent selected democracy as one of their top five most important social values. And the share of young people who consider democracy a “bad” or “very bad” way to run the United States is growing, according to the World Values Survey (which includes over 100 countries).
Millennials are also increasingly open to non-democratic forms of government. They’re the generation most likely to agree that it would be a good idea to have “a strong leader” as opposed to “parliament and elections.” In 2011, nearly half of young Americans supported this view, compared to less than 30 percent of Boomers and Silent. Similarly, 81 percent of Millennials think a military takeover would be justified if the government were failing. Among their elders, however, this figure plunges to 57 percent. Young Americans are also far more likely than older Americans to view socialism favorably, according to Gallupand the Pew Research Center.
Meanwhile, trust in public institutions has fallen to record lows. Those experiencing the biggest declines in recent years are hallmarks of U.S. democracy—for example, Congress, the Supreme Court, and mass media. By contrast, trust in institutions associated with order—namely, the military and the police—has remained steady or even climbed. Considering that young adults today trust individuals less than their elders, but institutions more (see: “Millennials in Search of Belonging”), it’s not surprising that they would welcome the idea of a strong, even autocratic, government.
Why are young people so disillusioned with democracy? Across Europe, high youth unemployment rates (ranging from 15 to 48 percent) and dismal economic prospects have convinced many that the system simply isn’t working, and that new blood is needed to upend the establishment. Far-right and left-wing parties have taken hold most strongly among youth in insecure countries who feel betrayed by the EU. (See: “A Rising Generation of Eurosceptics.”) American Millennials are fed up with a government they see as gridlocked, corrupt, and unable to solve problems.
Of course, Millennials aren’t the only ones frustrated with the status quo. Political dissatisfaction has risen among all age groups. But young people’s skepticism of democracy itself sets them apart from their elders. As Mounk and Foa point out in The Washington Post, Millennials’ openness to illiberal alternatives may reflect the fact they “lack the direct experience of living under, or fighting against, authoritarian regimes like fascism or communism.” It’s also rooted in a different perception of the future. The young are much more concerned than the old if leaders don’t seem able to prioritize or ensure their economic security and prosperity for the long term.
Another contributing factor is Millennials’ weak sense of American exceptionalism. Only 15 percent believe America “stands above all other countries,” versus 26 percent of Xers, 33 percent of Boomers, and 40 percent of Silent. Internationally, they’re far more positive than those 50 and older about China, an extremely future-oriented society that’s investing heavily in infrastructure and riding an economic boom—in stark contrast to leaders at home who struggle to focus on any long-term policy priorities. Though Millennials’ trust in government is low, they report higher levels of trust, higher expectations for services, and less anger than their elders—and that belief in government as an ideal makes them more inclined to look at other countries and imagine that another system might be able to deliver.
Moreover, young people’s aversion to democracy is motivated by a greater desire for simplicity. Faced with an abundance of choices (see: “When Less is More”) and a lack of economic security and stability, they are looking for employers who take care of them, all-inclusive packages and pricing that make life easy, and brands that take out the guesswork. An authoritative leader that makes choices for them—whether it’s a person or a brand—is seen as more admirable than one that offers dozens of options.
To be sure, these figures don’t mean that Millennials are clamoring for a dictator to take over. Although fewer consider democracy “essential” (i.e., a 10 on a 10-point scale), young people in most countries still, on average, assign it a positive value (around 7 or 8). But their increased willingness to entertain other forms of government and attraction to anti-establishment rhetoric reveals deep trouble for the moderate center in the United States and Europe. Young people’s disillusionment alone might not trigger revolution—but it lays the groundwork for older leaders—left or right—who want one.
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