Erdogan, President of a nation that is moving closer to its democratic allies, recently declared that phrases such as “democracy, freedom and the rule of law” have no value in Turkey today. It’s not the first time he’s declared that he doesn’t mind being non-democratic if it achieves his goals. It’s hardly even newsworthy anymore, given that his reforms have already undermined democracy. But he’s not alone. Russia, Hungary, China, Poland, Thailand, Ecuador, Senegal, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania… The list goes on and on. All of these countries’ political elites are challenging democracy. In fact concerns about democratic backsliding have been present ever since the mid-nineties. Today, there is almost no debate left that democracy is being challenged by authoritarianism. Yet perhaps more worrying is that these challenges are not limited to the peripheries – countries where democracy is only one or two generations old.
In developed, western, liberal, democratic economies, the elites have more deeply vested interests in the existing status quo. So it’s perhaps understandable how little serious analysis exists in these countries. However, millennials (people born from the early eighties to the late nineties), and perhaps even more strongly Generation Z (those who are still teenagers today), have worse career prospects than their parents. It is a fact that these generations seem to be well aware of. Indeed, of 42 nations surveyed by the WHO, the life satisfaction of those aged 11-15 had gone down everywhere! Furthermore, those who polled as being the least happy were all in Europe: Macedonian, Polish, and British teens had the lowest happiness levels. But it’s not restricted to Europe either (see the number of Americans open to non-democratic rule in the chart on the right). As an extreme example of changing sentiments, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a staggering 17% of high school students have seriously considered killing themselves!
As a millennial myself, I find it bizarre that I am at once continually shocked by such news, and yet at the same time in agreement with many of those surveyed. I am extremely pro-democracy. But I do not believe that democracy is headed in the right direction. I do not believe that what most people think of as democracy (an election, even with Proportional Representation) reflects the ideal type of democracy (no I don’t mean direct democracy, so please don’t comment about it). And I share the cynicism of those surveyed when it comes to the levels of trust we can vest in established institutions, be they corporate, or governmental. I too, was raised with the idea that I could achieve what I wanted if I worked hard enough for it. As an adult, it doesn’t take long to find out how relative that notion truly is. Are Generation Z finding out these harsh truths earlier? Or are they being extremified, and indoctrinated by media-friendly clips, which only show one small piece of the puzzle? Regardless, these generations are extremely unhappy with democracy today.
With such dissatisfaction, when voters feel lonely, oppressed by the day to day necessities of life, and alienated by politically correct politicians and executives who seem more machine-like than authentic; is it not natural to see a lurch towards populism? In populists such as Italy’s Berlusconi, America’s Donald Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, and many others, people often see someone who is authentic. Take Trump for example. His language is every day. He says whatever comes into his head, just as if he were sat in the pub talking with his mates. Whatever the reason for it, it’s worrying to see such a lurch from democracy to populism, and for a myriad number of reasons. It evidences our growing frustration with a political system that we don’t perceive to have delivered. In demonstrating that populism has such potential, it further undermines our faith in the political system as we know it. And perhaps worst of all, because the present political system is identified in peoples’ minds with democracy, and its challenges are coming from populist and authoritarian sources as opposed to reformists; it leads people away from identification with democracy.
A recent Guardian article cited several surveys showing that, for example, only 42% of Australian 18- to 29-year-olds thought democracy was “the most preferable form of government”, compared with 65% of those aged 30 or above. A recent poll in Canada found that less than 50% of young adults favour democracy. Having followed such polls for several years now, I can certainly notice a trend. But where will it lead? Are we giving up on democracy? Or are we simply, and finally, casting off that arrogance that once saw us declare that our political and economic systems heralded an ‘end of history’? For now, the verdict is out.