Watching the rise of populist parties across Europe, I was a little skeptical of this idea. So with a colleague, Roberto Stefan Foa, I started to look at whether citizens really were as satisfied with democracy as everyone assumed. And the results were pretty shocking. In the United States, for example, over two-thirds of older Americans believed that it was absolutely essential to live in a democracy; among millennials, less than one-third did. Twenty years ago, one in 16 Americans thought that “army rule” was a good system of government. A few years ago one in six did. And the figures are similarly worrying for a whole range of countries in Western Europe.
Frum: Is it possible that different cohorts understood your question in different ways? That younger people hear something different in the word “democracy” than older people?
Mounk: Perhaps. But some of our questions don’t actually use the term “democracy.” And over time there has also been a big loss of support for democracy among all age groups. So, for example, people in Germany, in France, in Britain, and also in the United States are much more likely now than 20 years ago to say that they support “a strongman leader who does not have to bother with politicians or elections.”
Frum: Do you see a connection between expressions of doubt about democracy and voter behavior? I note that except in France, it is older voters who are most likely to cast ballots for authoritarian populists.
Mounk: It’s not only France. The young are more likely to vote for far-right populists in Germany too. And they are much more likely to vote for far-left or ideologically fuzzy populists like Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. This makes me think that a lot of the anti-system energy among young people simply hasn’t been tapped yet in countries like the United States.
Besides, older voters have become much more critical of democracy over time as well. This is not only a story about the young. People aren’t just unhappy with particular parties or governments; they’re increasingly pissed off at the political system as a whole. That makes them much more open to populists, whose core claim is virtually always that the system is rigged. “The elites don’t care about you,” populists of all stripes say. “They’re in it for themselves. They care more about those people”—who those people are differs from country to country, of course; it can be Muslims in the United States or anybody who’s not a Muslim in Turkey—“than they do about you. So what you need to do now is to vote for someone who can truly speak for the people. That’s me. I am your voice.”
Frum: I’m glad you mention anti-system candidates of the left. What do you make of figures like Bernie Sanders and the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn, who reject many “rules of the game,” but who are not themselves authoritarian exactly? (Although Corbyn has long kept company with violent extremists, Irish and Islamic, and surrounds himself with associates who condone Stalinism and celebrate Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.)