Why are young and rich people increasingly supportive of authoritarianism over liberal democracy?

by Ryan Streeter on November 29, 2016. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

What is driving the falling support for liberal democracies among people living in them? That question has gotten some attention because of this Mounk-Foa article (PDF) in the Journal of Democracy, which was recently featured in the New York Times.

The times piece showed this chart from the Mounk-Foa article and focused on how support for liberal democracy is falling, and support for authoritarianism rising, among young people:


Those trend lines are startling.

But I wasn’t entirely surprised. Perhaps that’s because teaching on a university campus has shown me that young people today have a very “meh” attitude toward democratic capitalism. The clothes they can afford to buy; the relative peace and security they enjoy; the ability to freely choose their vocational path, even if it’s not a promising one – all of these things seem disconnected from their political philosophies. I’ve realized in my conversations with them how different my worldview is because I actually remember the Soviet Union and what it was like to be a teenager with socialism and communism as very real alternatives to the country in which I lived. I even visited Czechoslovakia as a teen and saw first-hand what life in an alternative was like. And it was depressing, even among one of the “better” communist countries. My students have no such memories and are mostly conversant of the failings of the country in which they live rather than others.

What did surprise me in the original Foa-Mounk article, which was not in the Times piece, is the following chart:


The lines are surprising, but it’s worth pointing out that we’re still looking at a minority of Americans here. Still, though, it’s strange that in increasing measure, people benefiting the most from the democratic United States are most likely to support authoritarianism over democratic rule.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Is this what cronyism looks like in an advanced administrative state like we have in America? Maybe some of the best-paid have come to terms with the benefits of working out arrangements with the bureaucracy over democratic process. Maybe, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Or at least complete. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that those who are benefitting financially these days are largely inured from the socioeconomic shocks that have roiled our country over the past 15 years or so, and not having a voice in the system doesn’t matter as much to them as it does to those who are losing out on every front right now. Maybe. Whatever the hypothesis, it seems like we really don’t have good answers at this point.

It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.

One final observation: Mounk’s work has gotten some attention in recent months mostly as people reflect on the Trump phenomenon. But it’s important to realize that those trend lines in the charts span the Bush and Obama years and beyond. That over a third of affluent American prefer authoritarianism has little to nothing to do with Trump. That should be where we focus our discussion as we try to figure out what is going on in America.