Young Americans are ditching democracy, say Harvard researchers

Democracy needs a new PR team. Polls about the way US millennials view democracy seem shocking, but analyzing their reasoning brings about an unsettling truth. 

Photo by Monika Graff/Getty Images
Photo by Monika Graff/Getty Images

2016 was a wild year, politically speaking. British voters elected to leave the European Union in a populist upset, sending markets spinning and rendering the phrase “sound as a pound" outdated as the currency lost 5% of its value against the dollar in a single day's trading. Americans selected Donald Trump by a minor victory, again shocking the world. In Austria, the candidate of the right-wing populist Freedom Party narrowly lost the presidency to a 72-year-old Green.

Meanwhile, in Turkey – a member of NATO, potential EU member, and often cited example of stable Democracy in the Middle East – the military attempted a coup d'etat in July in the name of “constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, and the rule of law". The defeat of the coup has lead to a massive crackdown on academia, journalists, and police officers.

It is perhaps understandable then that a new study by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, shows that many young people have increasingly un-liberal and un-democratic views about how governments need to operate. Only a third of US millennials see civil rights as “absolutely essential" in a democracy, compared to 40% of older citizens. Poll results are slightly higher, but similar, in Europe.

Likewise, only 20% of millennials agreed to the statement “a military takeover is not legitimate in a democracy". A full 25% of American millennials said that democracy is a “bad" or “very bad" way to run a country, up 10% from 20 years ago, and double the rate at which European millennials responded in the same way.


Source: Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk

Why might they think this way? The polls show younger people are the most inclined to have casual attitudes towards anti-liberal viewpoints, as opposed to their older counterparts. These millennials can only remember a time after Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History" and the triumph of Western Liberal Democratic Capitalism. To some extent, they may take the social order for granted and not see much of an issue with reduced liberties, having no memory of the great totalitarian regimes of the past.

On the other hand, these same people have seen democracy “fail" in several ways in their lifetimes. An American of 24 would have seen seven presidential elections in their lifetime, two of which were won by the person who lost the popular vote, and four by a person who didn't even get half the vote. Similarly, In the United Kingdom the most recent general election results were the worst ever in terms of actual voting results in comparison to who got into office. Only 36% of votes cast were cast for the Conservative party, which was able to form a majority government as a result.

It would be simple to view these events, and then perhaps conclude that your political rights and participation were of little importance.

If you thought that a decline in faith in democracy was enough, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has warned that people will turn their backs on free and open markets if nothing is done to make those systems work for everyone. Carney, who supports capitalism and open markets has made clear his belief that:

"We need to move towards more inclusive growth where everyone has a stake in globalization" and has expressed his fear that, "Globalization is associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities" and warns, “Turning our backs on open markets would be a tragedy, but it is a possibility". He does propose a notion for a solution, saying, “It can only be averted by confronting the underlying reasons for this risk upfront."

It is not hard to see that he may have a point about the popular view of globalization. In the United States both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders offered populist economic appeals, one of a social-democratic variety and one of a protectionist-nationalist type. Both argued against the TPP trade deal, which is now dead in the United States, but for differing reasons; both sides of the political spectrum agreed in rejecting the deal.

Carney's points are of great concern as polls show an increasing dissatisfaction with free trade, open markets, and capitalism in general. An increasing numbers of people in polling show they have less faith in the capitalist system than even a half decade ago.

Millennials, again, show the most dramatic break with the past as more people under 30 hold a favorable view of socialism then do capitalism. It may be noteworthy that the socialism that young people have a favorable view of is probably not the Soviet model, but the Nordic Model. This model is not hard left, but the traditional fear of Americans to the term socialism being tossed aside perhaps shows the beginnings of new political unrest in the United States.

So, is this the end of liberal-democratic capitalism? Is a new world order soon to be at hand?

Perhaps not; while the western model may be wobbling, there is still little in the way of viable competition. Dr. Fukuyama, who has long backed away from his previous stances, still argues that there is no high functioning alternative system as “neither Islamist theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it". Liberal democracy is liable to carry on as the dominant form of society for some time.

However, these systems only work if there is popular faith in their ability to improve the common condition. While some politicians are taking action to explicitly try to restore this faith, the exact nature of the remedies, how much is needed, and if we can avoid a repeat of what happened last time faith in democracy was tested, remains to be seen.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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