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Democracy, Meh?

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This week, The New York Times sent me and a lot of other millennials into a mild existential crisis with a report showing that only about 30 percent of us think it’s essential to live in a democracy. In comparison, about 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s thought democracy was essential. According to political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, this could be a symptom of a deeply troubled nation sliding toward authoritarianism. Whoa. Guys. Are we really OK with that?

First, the bad news: That data is legitimate, and it fits with research other pollsters have done on the millennial generation — loosely defined as everybody born from 1980 to 1997. In general, compared with older Americans, my generation is less religious and less patriotic, said Paul Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center who has written a book on millennials’ values and beliefs. We trust other people less, and we’re less attached to political institutions. All of that could, in fact, make those political institutions less stable, just as Mounk and Foa suggest.

That said, this isn’t exactly the same thing as millennials not liking democracy or clamoring for a dictator, Taylor said, and that isn’t how we should think about the Mounk-Foa data. Instead, Taylor thinks this generational divide reflects a couple of sociopolitical trends. “By any metric, government has performed badly” over the last 20 years, he told me. Millennials have come of age in a time when our democratic government has been characterized by gridlock, partisanship, ineffectiveness and resistance to change. We don’t see democracy as an important part of what makes America great, in other words, not necessarily because we don’t like democracy, but because we’re frustrated with the way ours is operating. Meanwhile, Taylor said, older generations came of age in a cultural climate where defending democracy — from fascism, from communism — was heavily emphasized. Twentieth-century hangover drives their ratings of democracy up, while 21st century political migraines drive ours down.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.