Younger People Are Actually More Supportive Of Democracy

Have you seen this horrifying graphic?

nyt-horrifying-graphic

It’s from a New York Times story, “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’” The graphic suggests that people were asked whether it was “essential” to live in a democracy and, in response, more than half of people born after the 1960s said it was not. Worse, the graphic suggests nearly 70% of people born after 1980 said it was not “essential” to live in a democracy.

If that were true, it would be quite alarming.

Here’s the good news: it’s not true. No one was even asked if it was “essential to live in a democracy.”

Here’s even more good news: that same study actually showed,

  • 98.9% of Americans under 30 believe it is “important” to live in a democracy.
  • Americans under 30 are three times less likely than Americans over 50 to say that free elections are not “essential.”
  • Americans under 30 are half as likely than Americans over 50 to say that civil rights protecting people from state oppression are not “essential.”
  • Americans under 30 are far less likely to say it is “essential” that people “obey their rulers.”

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let’s see how this all went wrong.

Problem #1: No One Was Asked Whether It Was “Essential” To Live In A Democracy

The New York Times’ graphic is based on an article from Democracy Review called “The Danger of Deconsolidation” which, in turn, is based on data from the World Values Survey.

Here’s the question that was actually asked by the World Values Survey:

How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically? On this scale where 1 means it is “not at all important” and 10 means “absolutely important” what position would you choose?

Notice the word “essential” is missing. We have no idea what people would have said if they asked, “Is it essential to live in a democracy? Answer yes or no.”

The authors of “The Danger of Deconsolidation” arbitrarily decided that a “a rating of 10 on a 10-point scale” was “essential,” and that anything less than 10 meant not “essential.”

Is that a fair assessment? Look at the numbers yourself:

dem-important-goverend-dem

All we can say for sure is that 1.1% of people under 30, 1.8% of people 30-49, and 0.6% of people over 50 said it was “not at all important” to live in a country that was democratically governed. Everyone else ascribed some importance to it.

Can we really say that someone who put a 9, an 8, or even a 5 would accept a dictatorship? To understand what those numbers mean, we need to understand the context of the question.

Problem #2: No One Agrees What A “Democracy” Is

The way questions are asked is important. As psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote in his most recent book,

If I inquired whether you were unhappy in, let’s say, the social arena, your natural tendency to hunt for confirmations rather than for disconfirmations of the possibility would lead you to find more proof of discontent than if I asked whether you were happy there. This was the outcome when members of a sample of Canadians were asked either if they were unhappy or happy with their social lives. Those asked if they were unhappy were far more likely to encounter dissatisfactions as they thought about it and, consequently, were 375 percent more likely to declare themselves unhappy.

Pre-Suasion, (p. 23).

Asking people “how important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically” is begging for confusion.

The word “democracy” is often thrown around like the word “delicious.” But it’s not so simple. There is no consensus among anyone — the public, lawyers, scholars, or politicians — about what makes a country a “democracy.” Abraham Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” So is the absence of slavery enough?

The most prominent definitions of a democracy are tongue-in-cheek: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” Winston Churchill. Democracy is “the substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few,” George Bernard Shaw. Thanks for the help, guys.

If you wanted to get technical about it, the United States is a constitutional federal representative democracy. Is a constitution “democratic?” The very point of a constitution is to thwart the current desires of the majority. Is a federal system “democratic?” We have one democracy on top of another, in which you’re subject to the will of two different majorities. Is a representative system “democratic?” You can’t introduce a bill into your state legislature or the federal congress and you can’t vote on one, either, and the most you can do to influence a government agency is to submit a comment to them.

“Democracy” can mean different things to different people — and it can be even more confusing when one person is trying to figure out what someone else means by “democracy.” So what did the participants in the World Values Survey think was meant by a “democracy?”

Problem #3: The Participants Were Primed To Be Confused About Democracy

Cialdini also notes a study in which researchers at a mall tried to conduct a survey and only 29% of people they approached participated. So the researchers switched tactics and started with “do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Almost everyone answered “yes,” and thereafter 77% of people participated. Just like how switching “are you happy?” to “are you unhappy?” can change a person’s answer, the answer to a question can be changed by the questions that came before it.

In the World Values Survey, right before the participants were asked about “how important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically,” they were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how “essential” various concepts were to democracy:

dem-ess-char-questions

Thus, we start with a bad question: “essential” usually means “indispensable” or “required” or “incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” “Essential” is thus a “yes or no,” not a “1 to 10.” Saying something is “7 out of 10 essential” is like saying someone is 70% pregnant or 70% dead. The survey participants would most likely recognize that and would try to plow through the survey anyway by interpreting the question to mean something like “important” or “helpful” or “good,” each of which could produce different answers.

Then it gets worse when the survey suggests nine “desirable” traits of government:

dem-ess-char-questions-full

Thus, before people were even asked about whether it was “important” to live in a “democracy,” which was the source of that terrifying New York Times graph, the survey had already thoroughly botched the English language, mixing up “essential” with “important.” Then the survey obliterated the definition of “democracy” by suggesting that democracies are defined by nine “characteristics,” most of which have nothing to do with the definition of a “democracy,” and several of which are arguably incompatible with “democracy” depending on how they are interpreted.

The survey could have asked people to identify what they thought were the “essential characteristics” of democracy. But that would have taken longer and wouldn’t have produced these easy-to-use tables, so they went with the worst option they could: giving people an inherently flawed question and then priming them to only consider certain answers. This is exactly the type of survey that can cause people, as Cialdini says, “both to mistake and misstate your position.”

All of which is to say: we have no idea what most of these numbers mean. We have no idea what it means when someone says something is “5 out of 10” essential compared to “7 out of 10” essential. All we can do is look at the results on the far edges of each particular question to identify the people who unambiguously disagreed with the concept proposed by the question.

The Real Facts: Young People Are Less Authoritarian Than Older People

I promised you at the beginning four facts:

  • 98.9% of Americans under 30 believe it is “important” to live in a democracy.
  • Americans under 30 are three times less likely than Americans over 50 to say that free elections are not “essential.”
  • Americans under 30 are half as likely than Americans over 50 to say that civil rights protecting people from state oppression are not “essential.”
  • Americans under 30 are half as likely to say it is “essential” that people “obey their rulers.”

Here’s the data.

People were asked,

How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically? On this scale where 1 means it is “not at all important” and 10 means “absolutely important” what position would you choose?

We must assume that only people who put a “1” thought it was not important. Everyone else ascribed some importance to it. Here’s the numbers:

dem-not-important

Thus, 98.9% of Americans under 30 believe it is “important” to live in a democracy.

People were asked if it was an “essential characteristic” for “people [to] choose their leaders in free elections.” We must assume only people who put a “1” thought that was not “essential.” Everyone else thought it was essential. Here’s the numbers:

dem-essential-free-electionsThus, Americans under 30 are three times less likely than Americans over 50 to say that free elections are not “essential.”

People were asked if it was an “essential characteristic” for “civil rights [to] protect people from state oppression.” We must assume only people who put a “1” thought that was not “essential.” Everyone else thought it was essential. Here’s the numbers:

dem-essential-civil-rightsThus, Americans under 30 are half as likely than Americans over 50 to say that civil rights protecting people from state oppression are not “essential.”

People were asked if it was an “essential characteristic” for “people to obey their rulers.” We must assume only people who put a “10” thought that was “essential.” Everyone else thought it was not. Here’s the numbers:

dem-essential-obey-2Thus, Americans under 30 are half as likely to say it is “essential” that people “obey their rulers.”

***

There’s plenty to worry about in this world. Let’s not add to it with misinterpretations of poorly-worded surveys. An overwhelming majority of participants agreed that living in a democracy was “important” and agreed with the “essential” characteristics of a democracy. Indeed, if the essential characteristics of a democracy are free elections, civil rights to protect from state oppression, and a healthy questioning of authority, then the younger generation is more supportive of democracy than the older generation.

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