New study reveals a generational shift in the US away from “democracy as the best system”

Younger Americans are showing less support for democracy compared to their elders, shaping the future political landscape.

In an era where political stability is often taken for granted, a trend has been uncovered in the United States: a generational decline in the support for democracy.

This pattern, which emerges from a rigorous analysis of national surveys spanning over two decades, suggests that the younger generation’s faith in democratic institutions is waning, potentially reshaping the political landscape of the future.

A Generational Gap

The new study, published on September 15 in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, was authored by Christopher Claassen (University of Glasgow) and Pedro C. Magalhães (University of Lisbon).

The researchers analyzed 12 national surveys collected between 1995 and 2019 from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the AmericasBarometer (AB), which polled nationally representative samples totaling 8,819 respondents from WVS and 9,609 from AB.

The new study reveals a marked age gap in democratic support, with younger Americans exhibiting less enthusiasm for democracy compared to their elders.

The decline is not a mere artifact of the life cycle, in which political views might shift with age, but a steady generational trend.

“Democracy as the best system”: from 94% in 2006 to 71% in 2019

In 1995, 75% of U.S. respondents rejected the idea of a strong leader ruling without the constraints of Congress and elections.

By 2017, that figure had decreased to 62%.

On the preference for democracy over any other form of government, 94% agreed in 2006, but by 2019, only 71% endorsed this view.

These figures are indicative of a significant decline, but when broken down by generation, the data reveal a more nuanced picture.

Respondents born before and during World War II showed over 80% support for democracy.

However, for those born in the 1970s and 1980s, the likelihood of supporting democracy fell below 70%.

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The Millennial Factor Revisited

The millennial generation, defined as those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, shows particularly low levels of democratic support.

This generation’s formative years occurred post-Cold War, diminishing the perceived threats to democracy that previous generations faced.

Moreover, millennials have experienced adulthood amid economic challenges, such as increased income inequality and stagnating wages for the middle and lower classes, which may have fostered openness to non-democratic alternatives.

The study’s findings emphasize that the lack of support for democracy among millennials is not an anomaly but the continuation of a trend that began with those born since the 1940s.

Each subsequent generation has exhibited lower democratic support than its predecessor, with millennials simply at the current end of this trend.

According to the AmericasBarometer results, the Silent Generation’s support for democracy was consistently strong, but for those born in the 1970s and 1980s, the figures reveal less than 70% support for democracy, even before considering other demographic variables.

The World Values Survey presented a slightly different but ultimately confirming picture.

Support for democracy was stable among those born between the 1910s to the 1940s but saw a significant decline beginning with generations born after the Second World War.

For individuals born since the 1980s, support for democracy was more than half a standard deviation lower than the peak seen around the Second World War, even when accounting for age, period, and demographic factors.

Other demographic variables

These generational trends persisted despite adjustments for other demographic variables, including political affiliation, education, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, and income level.

This comprehensive analysis suggests that the decline in democratic support in the United States is a pervasive generational issue, not merely a reflection of other demographic divides.

Claassen and Magalhães’s study paints a concerning picture of the future of democracy in the United States.

With each new generation less supportive of democracy than the last, the trend suggests a potential shift in the political culture as older, more democracy-supportive generations are replaced by younger, more skeptical ones.

The decline in democratic support among younger Americans, if it continues, may signal a transformative period in U.S. politics, where the commitment to democratic ideals and institutions faces unprecedented challenges.

Global Context

Interestingly, this trend in the U.S. contrasts with the situation in Europe, where support for democracy remains relatively stable across generations.

This divergence underscores the unique cultural and political dynamics at play within the United States.

Looking Ahead

As the United States grapples with its own democratic identity, the findings of this study serve as a wake-up call.

The erosion of democratic support among the young, if left unaddressed, may herald a future where the very foundations of the political system are at risk.

“The combination of generational decline without a positive and counterbalancing life-cycle effect offers a sober prognosis of how support for democracy in the United States might look in the future,” the researchers write.

This statement encapsulates the crux of the concern raised by Claassen and Magalhães’s study.

The assumption that younger generations would organically grow to support democratic norms as they aged is not evident in the data.

Instead, what surfaces is a consistent downtrend across generations, leaving the long-standing commitment of the American public to democracy in question — not only in their support for the concrete norms and institutions that uphold the democratic process but also in their abstract valuation of democracy itself.

This decline is not a reflection of momentary discontents or a temporary disengagement with political processes; it represents a deeper and possibly more enduring change in political culture.

Study Details

  • Title: “Public Support for Democracy in the United States Has Declined Generationally
  • Journal: Public Opinion Quarterly
  • Authors: Christopher Claassen, Pedro C. Magalhães
  • DOI Number: 10.1093/poq/nfad039
  • Publication Date: 15 September 2023