Why has the West gone cold on democracy?

The rule of law and good governance are the best sword and shield for individuals, writes Sholto Byrnes.

"There is a finer line than is commonly acknowledged between populism (which all ‘right-thinking’ people abhor) and democracy (which we all approve of).”

This sentence appeared in a recent contribution to the ever-expanding field of Donald Trump studies, by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times.

Its tone is likely to have raised few eyebrows among the FT’s readership, most of whom the paper could reasonably expect to agree with its propagation of the liberal economic and democratic order. The detail that there are many parts of the world where different value systems hold sway is not important to the FT. It regards it as a self-evident truth that “we all approve of democracy”, so the question of justifying that assertion does not arise.

Except it should. There is growing evidence that in the western countries where democracy is assumed to be most entrenched, support for it is far shakier than one might imagine – to the point of it being only a minority interest for younger cohorts. A recent study – the World Values Survey – found that under 30 per cent of Americans born after 1980 said that living in a democracy was essential to them.

“The democratic consensus is more brittle than it was,” concluded researchers Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk. “A process of what we call ‘democratic deconsolidation’ may be under way.” And not just in the US. According to a survey conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney last year, less than half of 18- to 29-year-old Australians agree with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

There may be a variety of reasons why young people in the West care less for democracy, and are so unengaged with the democratic process that a 2014 Eurobarometer survey found that only 38 per cent of Britons under the age of 25 had voted in an election in the preceding three years.

They may feel alienated by alternating establishments that are perceived to have failed to fix long-term problems, did not anticipate or deal properly with recession, and have left low-wage economies in which the prospects for youth appear bleak in comparison with the lives enjoyed by their parents. Although, if that is the case, voting for one of the new populist politicians who run against the system would seem to make more sense than not bothering.

It may be, as one commentator suggested, that "they have more diverting things to do"; perhaps the necessity of reaching the next level in Angry Birds Star Wars does seem more pressing than helping decide who will form the next government.

Whatever the causes, the revelation of such attitudes is generally greeted with dismay. How could young people possibly have such a low regard for a value the West rates so highly that it invades other countries to impose it on their populations? Is it indeed a result of apathy, and a lack of understanding that communism during the Cold War was not the system in today’s booming, consumerist China, but a chilling totalitarianism under which no liberties were protected? (I always remember the Russian composer who had to see one of his performances described in the state newspaper thus: “Today there will be a concert by enemy of the people Dmitri Shostakovich.”)

If there were no proper awareness of the fact that the lifting of the Soviet yoke from Eastern European countries was a triumph, and the freedom gained no small thing, then the laments of the youth would be justified.

But these surveys also show that although a fetish has been made of democracy, it clearly doesn’t have the universal appeal and application that its great flag wavers insist it has. It isn’t the automatic choice. There isn’t some predestined progression through different forms of government until “democracy” (by which its proponents nearly always mean a narrowly defined liberal democracy) is reached. Moreover, if young people express via democratic means their lack of affection for it, then on democracy’s own terms, those views have to be taken seriously.

If it is rights and freedoms that are deemed to be at stake here, it is important to point out that they are not contingent on democracy, and that democracy is no safe guarantor of them. Adolf Hitler, most notoriously, came to power via democratic, legal means.

Rights and freedoms are granted and protected by laws, and it is the rule of law and good governance that are the best sword and shield for individuals, rather than a system of voting that is prey to the tyranny of the majority while also, somewhat perversely, frequently handing the levers of power to parties that win far less than an overall majority of the vote.

If it is these – the rule of law and good governance – that young people treasure instead of democracy, then there is less cause for alarm. Indeed, one might argue that their values are better ordered than those who make democracy their be-all and end-all. For what is more important– a process, or an achievement that the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan once said was “perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development”? That is surely something of which everyone really does approve.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National