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Biden’s most urgent task: Addressing waning millennial support for democracy

Democracy around the world is under strain — from rising Chinese power, growing populism, economic struggles and President Trump’s undemocratic behavior at home and failed leadership abroad. As the incoming Biden administration tackles these challenges, it must also address another — waning democratic support among American millennials.  

A 2017 Harvard-University of Melbourne study showed that only 30 percent of American millennials stated that “it is essential to live in a democracy,” while 72 percent of those born before World War II support this statement. A recent October 2020 Bennett Institute for Public Policy survey confirmed this trend, noting that “(g)lobally, youth satisfaction with democracy is declining – not only in absolute terms, but also relative to how older generations felt at the same stages in life.”  

This waning support is fueled by millennials’ life experiences and questioning of American institutions they believe have failed them. Millennials bemoan a political system characterized by the excessive influence of money, an ineffectual Congress and, most recently, President Trump, who, according to many, has significantly undermined democratic values.

Likewise, millennials question the electoral college system, which in their lifetimes has brought two presidents to power who didn’t win the popular vote. The 2008 economic crisis brought hardship, leaving many millennials economically worse off than their parents. And as the most racially diverse generation of adults in U.S. history, they are troubled by the unfinished business of eradicating racial injustice. Simply put, for many millennials, American democracy is flawed. 

American global engagement is also questioned by a generation that was shaped by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many perceive these military actions as a key component of American democracy policy, not national security policy, thus undermining support for American democracy efforts overseas. Combined with America’s domestic challenges, these foreign policies have left many millennials less supportive of active U.S. engagement in the world, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As journalist Charlotte Alter summarized, “To many (millennials), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were expensive fiascoes that shattered their sense of American exceptionalism.”

At 72.1 million people, American millennials – currently 23 to 38 years old – are the largest voting bloc, and their political influence will continue to be crucial. If their commitment to democracy wanes, so does political support for needed domestic reforms and international support, which will be pushed out by millennials’ strong advocacy on domestic issues such as health care, education, labor and civil rights and racial discrimination

As the world enters its 14th straight year of democratic decline, supporting global democracy will no longer be a cornerstone of American foreign policy, as it has been since the 1970s. This will directly impact American security and prosperity, as democracy and human rights remain “the most promising path to peace and security in an increasingly turbulent world.“ The United States needs millennial support.  

Despite their skepticism, millennials also need strong democracy. Under no other system could passionate young people challenge, critique and mobilize for government action and justice. While millennials have valid critiques about democratic shortcomings, the needed solution is more democratic engagement to strengthen democratic institutions, rather than disillusionment. Many American icons, such as Rev. Martin Luther King and Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, recognized that sustainable change comes through utilizing democratic institutions along with civic activism to ensure that American laws and policies fully reflect American democratic ideals.  

And older generations need millennials’ activism and entrepreneurial engagement to strengthen democratic institutions and revive American global leadership to support activists under siege.  

The Biden administration must make this a priority. We are at a national inflection point and need to act before we reach a crisis point. Addressing this waning enthusiasm will require a national initiative that includes local and national governments and universities, which educate students and shape global citizens. It will also require partnering with civil society actors, such as racial justice activists, health care advocates and environmentalists, whose important causes cannot be advanced without a solid democratic structure in place. And it will require millennial thought leaders and influencers to ensure they are not simply mobilizing on key issues but also calling for a reinvigoration of the system that will convert activism into sustainable impact.   

We cannot afford to respond only to today’s democracy challenges without shoring up support for tomorrow. Our country deserves no less.  

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor at Georgetown University, teaching on democracy, human rights and ethics and decision making. A Kelly and David Pfeil Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, Bibbins Sedaca has more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. government, NGOs and academia working on supporting democracy globally.  

Tags 9/11 American democracy Demographics Donald Trump Millennials

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