Tuesday, March 06, 2018


David Brooks worries that democracy is at risk in America. I know, I know -- it's David Brooks. But I don't think he's completely off base. Brooks rounds up the usual suspects -- social media as polarizer, increased radicalization on (of course) both sides. I see a different problem: Economically, democracy is failing everyone but the rich. (See my last post.) But Brooks and I arrive at more or less the same place.

Among other things, Brooks is troubled by young people's apparent openness to dictatorial or military rule.
As Yascha Mounk writes in his book "The People vs. Democracy,” faith in democratic regimes is declining with every new generation. Seventy-one percent of Europeans and North Americans born in the 1930s think it’s essential to live in a democracy, but only 29 percent of people born in the 1980s think that. In the U.S., nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a bad way to run a country. Nearly half would like a strongman leader. One in six Americans of all ages support military rule.
I understand why young people worldwide would be skeptical of democracy -- it's left them with high student debt and insecure jobs (America) or high unemployment (Europe). As for strongman leaders, apparently they're most appealing to the young in America.

I don't think young Americans want a Hitler or Stalin -- they want someone who'll actually be what they're told presidents ought to be. We sell presidential candidates as messiahs, downplaying the importance of legislators in the governance of America. If you like a presidential candidate, you probably think he can make all of America's problems go away with a wave of his hand; the Trumpers certainly thought so in 2016 (with his encouragement), but so did a lot of Obama backers in 2008. If young people want a strongman, it may be because they're led to believe that the system we have now is meant to produce strongmen, and any congressional resistance to a president's agenda is the system failing to work as intended. (The resistance in the Obama and Clinton years was extreme, but there's supposed to be some resistance.)

As for military rule, what have millennials been taught about the armed services? Not that they're a source of potentially absolute power, but that they're a massive social service agency with weapons. In the past several decades, we've been encouraged to regard servicemembers less as swashbuckling warriors than as beleaguered but noble first responders who step into extremely dangerous situations with the goal of quelling violence, not engaging in it (except reluctantly). Even in the widely despised Iraq War, the opposition was encouraged to "support the troops, not the war."

Strongman rule and military rule are dangerous ideas -- but in America at least, they have origins that seem benign.

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