How stable are the world’s democracies? While there is a certain level of complacency among the citizens of most developed countries in the security of their freedom, at least one Harvard historian sees some glaring warning signs. Citing a “freedom index” compiled by Freedom House, Harvard historian Yascha Mounk notes that after rising steadily from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s, the number of countries globally that are considered “free” have been on a steady decline ever since.
Political scientists have a theory called “democratic consolidation,” which holds that once countries develop democratic institutions, a robust civil society and a certain level of wealth, their democracy is secure.
For decades, global events seemed to support that idea. Data from Freedom House, a watchdog organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, shows that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Many Latin American countries transitioned from military rule to democracy; after the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe followed suit. And longstanding liberal democracies in North America, Western Europe and Australia seemed more secure than ever.
But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?
In order to empirically test the stability the world’s democracies, Mounk developed a 3-part test based on the openness of citizens to non-democratic rule and the rise and influence of “anti-establishment” parties within those countries.
Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa developed a three-factor formula to answer that question. Mr. Mounk thinks of it as an early-warning system, and it works something like a medical test: a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms.
The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.
If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu.
While we’re all quite familiar with the rise of anti-establishment parties all over the world, the most startling takeaway from Mounk’s research was, even for developed democracies like the U.S., the staggering percentage of millennials who were seemingly indifferent to living in a democratic society. According to Mounk’s research, while the majority of Americans born before 1960 felt it was “essential to live in a democracy,” only around 25% of millennials held the same viewpoint.
Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.
Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.
That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.
Moreover, the indifference among millennials to democracy was consistent in countries all around the world.
Perhaps our precious snowflakes, who have all been so quick to lavish praise upon Fidel Castro, should spend a little time in Cuba to rediscover just how “essential” free and democratic societies are.
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