The end of the liberal tradition?
by Mark Movsesian
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.