If and When American Democracy Dies, Young People May Be to Blame

Posted in: Politics

Every day, or so it seems, Americans experience assaults on democracy that would have been unimaginable in the past. These assaults come from MAGA extremists, from their leader, Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent from the illiberalism of the extreme left.

Among the most important reasons that democracy is in trouble in this country is that there is a newly receptive audience for the assault mounted from the right and from the left. This is especially true among young people, who are much less attached to democracy than is the older generation.

If American democracy dies, young people may carry a large share of the blame.

Polls now show that “more than 8 in 10 Americans believe there is a serious threat to democracy.” Yet many people, especially the young, seem unmoved by such threats.

That may explain why Trump is far and away the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and, in many polls, is ahead of President Joe Biden when people are asked who they will support for president. Or it may be that the American people are confused about who, or what, is threatening democratic governance in this country.

President Biden regularly pins the blame on MAGA Republicans and increasingly is calling out Trump by name for the undemocratic things he says and the promises he makes about what he will do if he is returned to the Oval Office. As ABC reports, last week “Biden warned the former president would abuse the power of the presidency in a second term and noted that Trump continues to praise authoritarian leaders…. The language he uses reminds us of the language coming out of Germany in the ’30s.”

At a campaign event on Tuesday, “Biden brought up Trump recently telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he wouldn’t be a dictator ‘except for day one’…. ‘Let me be clear,’” Biden added, “‘I think Donald Trump poses many threats to the country. From the right to choose, to civil rights, to voting rights, to the American standing in the world.’”

“The greatest threat Trump poses is the threat to our democracy. Because if we lose, we lose everything.”

For his part, Trump is now responding in kind and calling Biden a threat to democracy. Earlier this month, at a campaign event in Iowa, the former president tried to turn the tables and accuse the incumbent of doing the very thing that, as an article in The Hill notes, is “most often associated with the prospects of his own return to the White House in 2024.”

Trump told his audience that Biden is “weaponizing government against his political opponents like a Third World political tyrant…. Biden and his radical left allies like to pose… as allies of democracy.”

“Joe Biden,” Trump said “is not the defender of American democracy. Joe Biden is the destroyer of American democracy. It’s him and his people. They’re the wreckers of the American dream. The American dream is dead with them in office.”

As a result of this “what aboutism,” it is not surprising that Americans are deeply divided about which political party poses the greatest threat to democracy. 49% say it is the Republicans, and 45% say it is the Democrats.

A 2022 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that “Democrats see that threat coming from the lies that former President Trump has been pushing, with baseless claims of a stolen election that have been disproven. But so many conservatives have been convinced of his election lies about voter fraud that, again, has not been—that has been proven not to be widespread, so they think Democrats are the threat.”

Another 2022 poll asked respondents what they meant when they said that they thought that democracy is under threat. Here again the country seems deeply divided.

“Democrats were most likely to cite the refusal of some candidates to accept election results (79%), political extremism (78%), and gerrymandering (61%). Republicans were most likely to list votes not being counted correctly (76%), ineligible voters casting ballots (72%), and corruption (70%).”

But there is another division that deserves attention if we are to understand why democracy in this country is in such trouble, namely a division between older and younger people. Put simply, support for, and belief in, democracy is much greater among Baby Boomers than it is among Millennials or Gen Z.

An article in the Washington Post notes that while 78% of Americans tell pollsters that democracy is “the best political system in all circumstances… among the Gen Z cohort, ages 18 to 25, nearly half answered either that it ‘makes no difference’ whether they live under a democracy or a dictatorship (28 percent) or that ‘dictatorship could be good in certain circumstances’ (19 percent).”

Among millennials, ages 26 to 41, “more than one third agreed with one of those statements.”

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.”

The democratic disillusionment of young people arises, in part, because for most of their lifetimes, American government also has seemed paralyzed and/or unwilling to do the things necessary to fix the problems that they feel are most pressing.

When young people today think about politics they’re more likely to think about issues of social justice than they are about the connection between what the government does and the economic conditions in which people live. The strong pull of identity politics has turned large numbers of young people into what Emma Taylor-Collins calls “social justice activists.”

What this means is that the younger generation is turning away from democracy because of what they perceive to be its failures in delivering racial justice, gender justice, and justice for LGBTQ+ persons. And today young people see America’s stance on the war in the Middle East and the achievement of justice for Palestinians as another failure of democracy.

All told, commitments to the achievement of justice are deeper among young people than are their concerns about the means of achieving it.

If we are to save democracy, we need to convince the young that democracy is worth saving. To do this we have to remind them that if American democracy fails, their hopes for achieving justice for disadvantaged people in this country and abroad will be lost.

Young people will only rally to democracy if they realize that while democratic governments often fall short on their commitments to equality and dignity for all citizens, without democracy, equality and dignity become utterly impossible.

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