‘Why I believe liberal democracy is at risk’

Threats: Many pundits now believe the “age of liberalism” has passed.
by Mark Movsesian

A professor of contract law and the Director of the Centre for Law and Religion in New York. He is an expert on secularism and has written papers on international and comparative law.

From consideration of current trends among people in the West, and among the young in particular, Mark Movsesian fears for the future of liberal democracy.

About 25 years ago a magazine published “The End of History?”— Francis Fukuyama’s extremely influential article arguing that liberal democracy had defeated all rivals and become the only plausible form of politics for the nations of the world.

Agreement had been reached, wrote Fukuyama, on the essential features of good government: rule of the people, tempered by a robust commitment to civil liberties; civilian control of the military; market economics; and free trade among nations.

These ideas had shown themselves the guarantors of peace and prosperity, and it was only a matter of time before states everywhere endorsed them.

An astonishing 35% of wealthy young Americans say it would be good if “the army to took over the country"

Yet hardly anyone could look at world politics today and argue that liberal democracy is sweeping the globe.

In fact, a fascinating paper published in The Journal of Democracy last year suggests that liberal democracy is losing ground even at home, in the West. Political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk review data from recent World Values Surveys and observe some truly remarkable trends, especially among young people.

Young people often reject the traditions of their elders; that is nothing new. What they seem to be rejecting nowadays, though, in increasing numbers, is the tradition of liberalism itself.

For example, the percentage of people in Western Europe and the United States who say it is “essential” for them to live in a democratically-governed country has declined dramatically across generations.

In the United States, less than one-third of millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and the mid-1990s—say it is essential for them. Think about that: more than two-thirds of American young people say democratic government is not a crucial factor in where they would want to live.

According to Foa and Mounk, these numbers do not reflect growing indifference to liberal democracy, but growing opposition. In the surveys, young people increasingly express openness to authoritarianism—especially young people who are rich.

An astonishing 35% of wealthy young Americans say it would be good if “the army to took over the country”! This is a profound change from prior generations, in which “affluent citizens were much more likely than people of lower income groups to defend democratic institutions”.

Democracy and liberty are not necessarily linked; the mob can violate freedom, too. Perhaps young Americans are suspicious of popular majorities but remain committed to civil rights?

This, also, turns out to be doubtful. The surveys reveal that younger Americans value civil liberties, such as free speech, less than their parents did. For example, only 32% of millennials say that civil rights are “absolutely essential” in a democracy, a steep drop from previous generations.

Now, as commentators have pointed out, this is just one set of data. It is possible that the World Values Surveys overstate liberalism’s diminishing appeal and miss trends that favour its long-run prospects, such as “the high levels of social tolerance among young people”. But Foa and Mounk’s paper certainly seems plausible.

If the trends they identify continue, the West, including the United States, faces a political transformation unlike anything we have seen for generations. Liberal democracy does not look like it is about to collapse, they concede. But, then, neither did world communism, even right before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Published by kind permission of First Things. For the original piece please follow the second link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Will the world in 2067 be more democratic or less democratic?

Activities

  1. Write down five essential elements for a successful society, and compare your choices with those of your classmates.

Word Watch

Francis Fukuyama
An American political scientist and economist. He was once associated with the neoconservative movement, but has since distanced himself from this.
The West
In Europe, the rise of right-wing populist movements such as the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany, as well as the governments of Hungary and Poland, have led many to fear for the future of liberal democracy.
Authoritarianism
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.”
Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall once divided capitalist West Berlin and communist East Berlin. The fall of the wall in 1989 was seen as the symbolic end of the cold war.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.