The Baby Boomers will be remembered as the luckiest generation in history. But the millennials will be remembered as the most spoiled. Previous generations perceived democracy as the moral antithesis to the Orwellian authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, and discerned a sacred duty to defend it. But with the existential threat of Soviet dictatorship gone, and the capitalist-democratic system developing its own Orwellian spectre, our generation has started asking the most dangerous question of all: do we really need democracy?
A 2017 Pew Research Poll found that that in the US, 46 percent of those aged 18 to 29 would prefer to be governed by technocrats rather than democratically elected officials, compared with 36 percent of respondents aged 50 and older. Even more striking, a Harvard study found that just 19 percent of U.S. millennials agreed with the statement that “military takeover is not legitimate in a democracy.” Perhaps most alarming was the revelation than one quarter of millennials agreed that “choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant.”
What the hell happened?
Millennials are the first post-Cold War generation, and this shows in their attitudes toward democracy. Baby Boomers and Gen X’s, who came of age during the Cold War, saw democracy relative to communism, its diametric opposite in every way. We grew up in a world where democracy had won, and there were no more worlds to conquer. Having never witnessed the genuine threat of a competing ideology, we have never been forced to consider what life might be like without democracy. None of us remember the Berlin Wall, which has now been down longer than it was up, and how unauthorised passage from East to West would get you shot.
For many millennials, democracy no longer seems to be working. While we’ve never had to stand in a bread line, many have experienced first-hand the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Simple things such as home-and car ownership, which past generations took as a birth right, are now far from guaranteed. Our elected representatives frequently seem incapable of getting anything right, in particular a failure to understand the global awareness touted by millennials on issues such as climate change and refugee crises. For a generation of idealists like our own, the world seems a bit too cruel, and the establishment a bit too comfortable. So when the millennial vote loses to Brexit and Trump, many of them will ask democracy: what have you done for me lately?
Crucial to hollowing out of democracy is losing faith in its principles. And free speech, that most sacrosanct of democratic norms, is in mortal danger. The internet’s ability to give anyone a platform to broadcast anything to the world has prompted a backlash against free speech, as those who feel threatened by open debate, and exposure to opinions at odds with their own, devalue its merits. A Europe-wide poll this year found that only 46 per cent of Brits aged 18 to 21 think people should be free to ‘say what they want’. Nearly half of students advocate some curbs on expression, and nearly a fifth think it acceptable to shut down unacceptable speech with violence. The effects have been witnessed on university campuses across the Anglosphere, where ideas such as academic censorship, safe spaces and no-platforming are slipping into the mainstream.
Above all else, millennials lack perspective. Modern autocrats don’t win power by military coup, but rather by gently nudging people toward unwittingly consenting to dictatorship, one concession at the time. Democracies endure because the principles that govern them are inviolable, without exception. Millennials have never faced such a threat in the Western world, not even from Trump (see last week’s column). Few millennials will be in favour of autocracy, but many will agree to exempting democratic norms as the means to an end. Overturning a democratic referendum? Check. Declaring a mentally healthy, if imbecilic, President unfit to govern? Check. Impeaching the same President without sufficient evidence? Check. The tools that would permit such anti-democratic exercises, however virtuous their goals may seem, would soon be used against us. The next dictator in the West will have been enabled by the young, not the powers that be.