Monthly Feature: The End of the Liberal Tradition?

A New Paper Suggests Young Americans Are Giving Up on Democracy

By Mark Movesian at First Things, August 17, 2016 •

About twenty-five years ago, The National Interest published “The End of History?”— Francis Fukuyama’s extremely influential article arguing that liberal democracy had defeated all rivals and become the only plausible form of politics for the nations of the world. Agreement had been reached, wrote Fukuyama, on the essential features of good government: rule of the people, tempered by a robust commitment to civil liberties; civilian control of the military; market economics; and free trade among nations. These ideas had shown themselves the guarantors of peace and prosperity, and it was only a matter of time before states everywhere endorsed them.

At the time, some people wondered whether religious and cultural differences might stymie the global triumph of liberal democracy. Liberalism did not comport well with the assumptions of all the world’s civilizations, Samuel Huntington objected; it was myopic to think that the Western traditions of rights and limited government, which themselves had evolved out of Christian tradition, particularly Western Christian tradition, were universal. Right-thinking people dismissed Huntington as a know-nothing, but, twenty-five years later, his understanding has proven correct. Hardly anyone could look at world politics today and argue that liberal democracy is sweeping the globe.

In fact, a fascinating new paper in The Journal of Democracy suggests that liberal democracy is losing ground even at home, in the West. Political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk review data from recent World Values Surveys and observe some truly remarkable trends, especially among young people. Young people often reject the traditions of their elders; that’s nothing new. What they seem to be rejecting nowadays, though, in increasing numbers, is the tradition of liberalism itself.

For example, the percentage of people in Western Europe and the United States who say it is “essential” for them to live in a democratically-governed country has declined dramatically across generations. In the United States, less than one-third of millennials—defined as people born since 1980—say it is essential for them. Think about that: More than two-thirds of American young people say democratic government is not a crucial factor in where they would want to live.

According to Foa and Mounk, these numbers do not reflect growing indifference to liberal democracy, but growing opposition. In the surveys, young people increasingly express openness to authoritarianism—especially young people who are rich. An astonishing 35 percent of wealthy young Americans say it would be “a ‘good’ thing for the army to take over” the country! This is a profound change from prior generations, in which “affluent citizens were much more likely than people of lower income groups to defend democratic institutions.”

Democracy and liberty are not necessarily linked; the mob can violate freedom, too. Perhaps young Americans are suspicious of popular majorities but remain committed to civil rights? This, also, turns out to be doubtful. The surveys reveal that younger Americans value civil liberties, such as free speech, less than their parents did. For example, only 32 percent of millennials say that civil rights are “absolutely essential” in a democracy, a steep drop from previous generations.

Now, as commentators have pointed out, this is just one set of data. It’s possible that the World Values Surveys overstate liberalism’s diminishing appeal and miss trends that favor its long-run prospects, such as “the high levels of social tolerance among young people.” But Foa and Mounk’s paper certainly seems plausible. In fact, the paper helps explains some of what is happening in American political culture.

Liberalism is often understood as propositional, as a series of abstract principles. This understanding has led scholars like Fukuyama to think that liberalism can be easily exported to other cultures; it has formed the basis for much American foreign policy, especially in recent decades. In important ways, this understanding is correct. Liberalism does justify itself largely on the basis of ideas. The Framers of the American Constitution, for example, were strongly influenced by Enlightenment concepts of reason and rational government.

In a deeper sense, though, liberalism generally, and American liberalism specifically, is a tradition, the organic working-out of precedent, over time, in a particular political culture. The American Framers were figures of the Enlightenment, true, but they also thought they were restoring the traditional rights of Englishmen, rights that could be traced back to Magna Carta and beyond. The American conception of religious liberty, for example, is deeply influenced by the historical experience of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and also by the particular understanding of religion that took hold in a colonial, frontier society. This explains why it differs so much from its cousin on the European continent, the French doctrine of laïcité.

But American culture is changing. Our traditions are not so popular nowadays, including our political traditions; and when we discard our traditions, we can fall for many things, including, apparently, authoritarianism. That, it seems to me, is the upshot of this important paper. The authors identify authoritarianism in our politics with Donald Trump, and it’s easy to recognize Trump’s authoritarian appeal (“I alone can fix it”). But there is authoritarianism on the left, as well, which the authors ignore. American college students increasingly oppose free speech, at least with respect to certain viewpoints, and insist on shutting down speakers with whom they disagree, often with the approval of administrators and faculty who should know better. Not to mention the left’s continuing assaults on religious liberty, including attempts to get nuns to cover contraceptives for their employees and threats to remove the tax-exempt status of religious schools that disapprove of same-sex marriage.

Foa and Mounk’s paper is bracing. If the trends they identify continue, the West, including the United States, faces a political transformation unlike anything we have seen for generations. Liberal democracy doesn’t look like it’s about to collapse, they concede. But, then, neither did world communism, even right before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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