Democracy vs. Dictatorship: Millennials vs. Trump?

12/31/2017 02:45 pm ET

Dictatorship is easy; one guy (or gal) calls the shots. It can get more complicated when oligarchs fight over control or have competing interests, but generally the fewer people involved in the decision-making, the easier governing will be. The simplest, of course, is simply to have Big Brother tell us what is right or wrong, and especially what is true or false. This may not be fun, but it is efficient, a key goal in dystopian governments (see Brave New World or We or the Handmaid’s Tale).

Democracy is hard. It is a messy, complex, slow, painstaking process, and almost everywhere has proved difficult in practice. As Otto von Bismarck once remarked, it is like watching sausages being made (after which your appetite for sausages pretty much dries up). As Winston Churchill famously remarked, it really is the worst form of government – “except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time.”

So why keep it around? The reason is not about any intrinsic brilliance in the way we currently do democracy – in fact, it seems deeply flawed in most places, in all kinds of ways. (In this country, for example, we have the vague ideal that citizens should vote, but we seem not to be fully putting this into effect well for a whole lot of us.)

The reason we keep democracy around is that it is better than anything else we can come up with. It is a completely imperfect, sometimes dangerous tool by which we seek to prevent two worse dangers: tyranny and anarchy. A good government seeks to avoid both; democracy is, as far as we in political science can tell, the best way to get and then keep a government that is reasonably good. As someone who studies democracy, I will freely admit that my preferred form of government would be benevolent dictator. The problem is that you can never be sure a.) you will get a benevolent one, or b.) that s/he will stay benevolent.

So, democracy. It is hard even to say what we mean by that concept (we fight in political science all the time over how to measure it), but some excellent thinkers (see Freedom House and POLITY, for example, as well as the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights) have identified a few key core values, including rule of law, electoral competition, checks and balances, freedom of expression and association, a free vote, due process, individual civil rights and liberties. Yet democracy is fragile, and often under threat. Some recent political science work has found a lurking preference in a surprising number of Americans for authoritarian (non-democratic) governance, especially among whites and Republicans.

Millennials, however, appear not to like authoritarianism. (They are less likely than their elders to be Republicans and far less likely to be white, by the way.) Maybe they just don’t like authority. Either way, they would have elected Clinton over Trump by a large margin, and they are unhappy about the Trump regime and its actions thus far (has it really only been three weeks?). Part of this may be the exuberance and idealism of youth, but those youth now constitute the largest generation and, if they could be persuaded to vote at higher rates, could be a potent political force in coming elections. And this new reality in American politics just might do the trick of convincing them.

In my book from earlier this year, Out of the Running, I write about the costs-and-rewards framework through which elite Millennials consider political candidacies. Through several years of research, including over 50 hour-long interviews and nearly 800 surveys, I collected data about law and policy school graduate students in institutions that feed graduates into national and state-level politics, asking them how they think and feel about politics, policy, and running for office.

On the whole, few really wanted to run; most were what I call rationally deterred. They cited numerous (real) costs to running, like the chore of having to raise so much money, the inevitable “stench” of corruption that comes with the way we fund campaigns, the emotional costs of hostility and acrimony, the invasion of privacy by media and now social media, and many more. Balanced against these were some rewards, like the ability to make positive change or help people with their problems, or the desire to be famous. For some of these bright young people, the rewards were higher than the costs – but this was a small and mostly-male segment of my sample. For most of the sample, and especially the women folk, the costs outweighed the potential rewards of a run. Women of color in particular stood out; for them, even though this subgroup was the most interested in “helping my community,” the costs of running for office seemed higher and the rewards lower. Most of these thoughtful, intelligent graduate students wanted to change the world, but just did not see electoral politics as the way to do it.

But I think that is changing now. The costs-rewards framework I set up in my book still applies, but I think the new Trump era is making clear some new rewards that were not as visible before. In particular, it turns out that living in a democracy cannot be taken for granted – that just may, in fact, be a real reward of political participation. And Millennials seem to be realizing this. Just the other month, here in Philadelphia, there was a training for young people interested in candidacy. The organizers had planned for 30 people, but 275 showed up. Across the country, political campaign training organizations for Democratic women like Emerge and Vote Run Lead are reporting record turnout and interest. In cities everywhere, Millennials are springing up to run.

This is the wave of the future. Young people, especially a diverse group of women, will make all the difference in political leadership. There is a stereotype that Millennials are stuck-up, selfish, selfie-taking spoiled brats, but boy, I did not see that in my research. This is a caring, compassionate, smart generation, who may be snarky and love their irony, but they are more than a match for the current crop of political officeholders. If the battle is Trump vs. Millennials in the coming years, my money is on the kids.

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