Is Democracy Destroying Itself?
Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, had grave doubts about the durability of American democracy. Yet today, more than 200 years later, democracy in America still stands. Self-interested men—the infectors of violent passions and shredders of Constitutional norms James Madison warned of in Federalist 63—may have bludgeoned and battered it into weakness, but is it really on suicide watch?
As the United States approaches its 250th birthday, the question of the future of American democracy is more pertinent than at almost any time in the nation’s history. Political elites and politicians dismantle the guardrails protecting democracy without concern or consequence. Polarization divides Americans into warring tribes of red and blue. Obvious falsehoods are repeated endlessly in the media until the truth is obscured and facts themselves are uncertain.
Alone, these factors would challenge the health of any democracy. But in America they are compounded by another unrecognized and dangerous reality: According to survey research, just 41% of Americans 18 years of age and older today are consistent supporters of democracy. The rest—a 59% majority—are inconsistent supporters of democracy. Some of them believe that a strong leader who does not heed election results or acknowledge congressional authority is acceptable. Others say a non-democratic government can be preferable to real democracy. Some assert that democracy is a bad way to govern the United States. And a few agree with more than one of these three notions.
While the 41% score for consistent support for democracy is striking, it obscures a potentially deeper and more dangerous problem: a demographic trend that is not democracy’s friend. Younger Americans are much less likely to support democracy consistently than older Americans.
Only one in four Americans between 18 and 39 years old is a consistent supporter of democracy—a full 16 percentage points below the mean support score for all citizens of voting age. By comparison, 65% of America’s septuagenarians, and their Greatest and Silent Generation brethren, support democracy consistently.
When approximately three-quarters of citizens 18–39 years of age do not consistently support fundamental democratic tenets, what are the odds, as these younger citizens age and replace their more supportive parents, of democracy surviving?
If 75% of Americans aged 18–39 remain inconsistent supporters of democracy, and the generation that follows them into adulthood is as skeptical about democracy’s merits as they are, then, over time, the base of consistent supporters for democracy in the United States will inevitably decrease. And the farther the consistent base of support democracy falls in the United States, the greater the likelihood that power-seeking demagogues, unconstrained by democratic rules and norms, can further hollow out democracy. This hypothesis of demographic succession, which argues that more consistent supporters of democracy are being replaced over time by those who are less consistent, may be a ticking demographic time bomb in the heart of American democracy.
This warning about the shape of things to come in the United States is the result of quantitative and qualitative research. From October 2022 through April 2023, the Freudenberg Foundation, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund, researched Americans’ views on democracy nationwide. The research included a survey (N=800) of Americans of voting age with an oversampling of those 18–29 years old (N=399) as well as a panel-back poll to determine whether the inconsistency in young Americans’ support for democracy was constant. (Spoiler alert: It was.)
Survey findings were augmented by qualitative research among young inconsistent supporters of democracy to understand why these young Americans were less supportive of democracy. Qualitative research included four focus groups with inconsistent supporters of democracy in Wisconsin separated by gender and race (Black men, Black women, white men, and white women). In addition, three nationwide, online discussions with young inconsistent supporters of democracy took place over three months.
This research identified the reasons why younger Americans doubt democracy and revealed the depth of their distrust and misunderstanding of it.
It also pointed to two other concepts— freedom and community—that may be the key to reviving support for democracy in the United States.
Some research findings:
No matter their race or gender, young inconsistent supporters of democracy in America lack basic knowledge about the Constitution, American government, history, and democracy. Those who remember some civics instruction have a dim, hazy recollection of what they learned. Others remember learning primarily about the president, parties, and little else.
To most young inconsistent supporters, democracy today is neither an aspirational idea, nor an inspirational ideal. It’s not even a system of constitutional checks and balances that protects individual freedoms. Instead, democracy is a concept stripped of import and sapped of meaning—an irrelevant and emotionally impoverished concept.
Voting is the only way most inconsistent supporters of democracy know how (or are told how) to participate in democracy. The flattening of the meaning of participatory democracy from the multifaced, civic endeavor celebrated by de Tocqueville to a unidimensional, civic chore of questionable utility (voting) reverberated throughout focus groups and the online qualitative discussions. Even worse, voting is perceived as a sham, a symbolic act of questionable utility, an illusion of power and choice where there is neither. These young Americans suspect that their votes simply do not count.
At best, democracy is just another broken system of government that, more often than not, favors the connected, rich, and already powerful. The government produced by a bogus voting process is “unrepresentative,” systemically “broken,” and “corrupt".
At worst, to some young Black American men, democracy is simply a lie. The unrepresentative and unresponsive government produced by corruption and a sham voting process is a symptom of a fundamental problem that began with the founding of the American republic and continues today. The problem? The constitutional system was never intended for all Americans, and to this day is manipulated to exclude the voices of We the People from governance.
Frustration with the torturous checks and balances of American democracy and the multiple institutional veto points, the “traffic cones” impeding progress, as one focus group participant called them, is also endemic. American democracy is stacked against the people and awash in money used to buy influence, policy outcomes, and power. The bill of grievances against the democratic system of government raised in the focus groups is long and growing, rivaling the “injuries and usurpations” of the “present King of Great Britain” listed in the Declaration of Independence. Young inconsistent supporters of democracy are also split on the question of whether the government of the United States is a democracy today. Their attitudes are based not on the reading of scholarly assessments; rather, they are heartfelt and based on personal experiences. Perceptions rooted in lived or observed experiences are exceedingly difficult to dislodge, and each represents a threat to the future health of democracy in America.
Only four in ten Black and white Americans in the online discussions (not a random statistical sample) said they wanted to work to keep and improve democracy today. Some—especially Black men—feel that a non-democratic government that works for them may be preferable to a democracy partially controlled by a MAGA minority that perpetrated the January 6th insurrection and mainstreams white supremacy. To these young observers, January 6th was not only a reminder of America’s long history of violence towards minorities, but also a harbinger of what is to come.
While democracy is a hollowed-out concept for the young Americans who participated in our qualitative research, freedom is not.
Of the seven iconic words and phrases tested to describe and evoke the core values and attributes of America’s democratic system, freedom rated the highest among all groups of inconsistent supporters of democracy aged 18 to 29. They place freedom at the heart of America. It evokes emotion, passion, and a host of rich associations in them. In all its variations, from freedom of speech to freedom to marry (for many, but not all), it is a concept that even inconsistent supporters of democracy cherish.
Eighteen to 29-year-olds view freedom in America as imperfect. It is contested in many ways, from the loss of abortion rights to calls for reparations. But it is precisely these contests that make freedom a relevant concept to young inconsistent supporters of democracy and worthy of their time and engagement.
Freedom, then, may be one key through which democracy may be reinvigorated in the United States.
That said, understanding what freedom means to young inconsistent supporters of democracy is key to unlocking its persuasive power.
To white men and women in the qualitative boards, freedom means “Do what you want to do." They envision freedom as an entitlement, an empowering privilege. To Black men and women in the boards, freedom is less about privilege and entitlement and more about rights that protect and that are insecure because they can be snatched away by the political machinations of American democracy. For young Black Americans, freedom is what enables them to breathe and to make choices—a right granted to them as citizens.
While inconsistent supporters of democracy overwhelmingly equate democracy with voting, not one mentions voting as a freedom. Similarly, when asked to find images that represent freedom, not one inconsistent supporter of democracy offers a voting visual. To them, the linkage between democracy and voting is a clear, top-of-mind connection: democracy = voting. The connection between freedom and voting, on the other hand, is neither direct nor top-of-mind.
When asked which is more important—freedom or democracy—majorities of white men and women and Black women choose freedom over democracy. Black men choose freedom or say democracy and freedom are equally important.
Like freedom, community is also a value-laden, emotionally packed term for most inconsistent supporters of democracy. Community is place, family, togetherness, connection, nostalgia, safety, responsibility, and hope all rolled into one. At its core, community is about unity—something lost in today’s polarized America. When asked where making America a better place begins, all four groups of inconsistent supporters interviewed (men and women, Black and white), overwhelmingly answered that it was in community. Thus, while they perceive democracy as producing disunity, they see community as a vehicle for bringing people back together.
Inconsistent supporters of democracy feel almost completely disempowered when it comes to democracy and politics at the state and national level, but are primed to become involved, take action, and serve at the community level.
Nearly 60% of the participants in the qualitative board discussions say they strongly agree that volunteering can create positive change where they live. Another 30% somewhat agree, making agreement with the question nearly unanimous among them.
The quantitative and qualitative research conducted to date in the United States indicates that volunteering programs that are framed in terms of freedom work at the community level, produce demonstrable results, and are then linked explicitly to democratic practices may be a grassroots way to begin rebuilding support for democracy among young people. This approach certainly needs to be developed, tested, and evaluated, but it has the potential to make citizens less vulnerable to the siren songs of demagogues and authoritarians.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared that democracy was triumphant, the final form of human government. His proclamation was not only premature, but it failed to recognize a fundamental historical rule. As John Dewey wrote less than a century earlier in his Democracy and Education: “Democracy has to be reborn every generation, and education is its midwife.” If we are to heed Adams’ warning and have a chance at preventing the United States from committing suicide in the coming years, we must educate each generation about the virtues of democracy and how it is inextricably linked to community-building and the advancement of individual freedoms.
The research presented here was made possible by a grant from the Freudenberg Foundation.