Greetings, fellow Americans. It is time for a collective wake-up call for all of us that believe that democracy (with its many issues and challenges) is the best form of governance.

Would you believe it, if I told you that:

  • Less than 1/3 of millennials see it as essential to live in a democracy? Compare that to 2/3 of Americans born in the 1930’s and 1940’s that believe that it is.
  • Close to 1 in 4 millennials believe that democracy is a bad way to run the country.
  • In 1995, 34 percent of young Americans (aged 18-24) felt that a political leader who would not have to bother with Congress or elections was either a good or very good idea, and that, in 2011, the number who felt that way had grown to 44%.
  • In 1995, one in 16 young people (aged 18-24) said they favored military rule to a liberal democracy, and that in 2014, that number had grown to one in 6?

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? These, and other disturbing statistics can be found in a compelling new book by Yascha Mounk, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It”.

We have been told that our education system is failing many children and that civic education is in decline, but I did not realize how bad things apparently are. The sad news is that similar trends can be documented among young people living in long-standing democracies around the world. We all know that trust in democratic institutions has fallen over the years since the Watergate Scandal, but perhaps we have been lulled to sleep by the media’s focus on the latest simplistic political rant or reality TV shows, rather than on these shattering statistics.

In many ways, these data are not surprising if we consider that:

  • Civics and government classes are taught less and less as a required course in high school. I know that it was considered an elective at my children’s school. Without the proper education, one would not see active citizenship as essential to fixing or upholding our democratic form of governance.
  • One rarely sees democracy functionally modeled in our day-to-day lives. We see it as something someone else practices as legislator, politician, or President (and sometimes not even in those roles).
  • Our politicians often make a mockery of its ideals, pushing their own agendas instead of seeking what is good for the whole of society.
  • Many young people have no real understanding of what it feels like to live under a dictatorship or military rule. Fewer and fewer of them know anyone who lived through World Wars, Korea, or other armed conflicts brought about by autocrats or despots.

I work hard at not being alarmist, but these trends have me deeply concerned, and I hope they disturb you, too. I am inspired by my work to renew democracy, because evidence of its decline is all around us. But it is up to each of us, not just a few, to address these trends.

Heaven knows that democracy is often poorly executed or shrouded in hypocrisy. But I focus on what it can mean to us if there are people committed to upholding its ideals and purpose. Ultimately, it seems to be our best hope to ensure that human capacity is not dampened or shut in a box, that self-rule can persist.

Mounk’s book is a call to action for those that love the ideals of democracy. He states,

“Until very recently, most of us lived in ordinary times. The stake of politics has always been high. But it rarely took great courage to stand up for what we hold dear. Doing the right thing did not require huge sacrifices. If we lost an important battle, we knew that there would be another chance to win the war.

Now, by contrast, we are entering extraordinary times. The stakes of politics have become existential. In the years to come, it may be harder and harder to stand up for what we hold dear. If we are to do to the right thing, at the decisive hour, we need to be willing to make a real sacrifice.”

I challenge each of you to take a stand for democracy and to own your role in making it more functional and familiar in our everyday lives. Civic Organizing© offers a useful framework for making that happen in organizations of all kinds. It is a huge step in the right direction.

 

For additional information about these statistics, read more from Yascha Mounk’s book,” The People Vs. Democracy: How our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It”, from Harvard University Press, 2018. The statistics I have cited can be found in the chapter entitled, “Democracy is Deconsolidating”, pages 99-131. The final quote above can be found on page 265.

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