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It’s actually older people who have become more cynical about U.S. democracy

Here's the data.

- December 14, 2016

Editors’ note: In this archival piece from December 2016, Good Authority editor Erik Voeten takes a closer look at the data on how Americans view democracy – and finds some surprises.

Millennials have come in for a lot of blame lately. They have ruined democracy. They are culpable for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Newsweek proclaimed that millennials have fallen out of love with democracy. An entire generation has lost faith in democracy, says another dramatic headline.

Pinning societal problems on younger generations is an age-old pastime. But it seems particularly unfair this time around. The 2016 U.S. elections and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom triggered a lot of these discussions. Only 37 percent of people under 30 voted for Trump in 2016. Younger people were also much more likely to vote against Brexit.

Moreover, when you look more closely, it’s actually older people who have become more cynical about U.S. democracy.

VOETEN older people

Much of the hype about millennials comes from a heavily publicized finding from the 2011 World Values Survey. Millennials were less likely to attach a great deal of importance to living in a democracy and were somewhat more likely to embrace alternatives, such as a strong leader. This finding is limited to the United States and much more modest than originally portrayed.

So what if we look at more data? Very few surveys in the United States ask similar abstract questions about the value of democracy. But we have a lot of good data going back a long time on Americans’ confidence in actual democratic institutions.

The graph above examines patterns since the early 1970s in whether Americans have “a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all” in the United States Congress. The data come from the high-quality General Social Survey.

The percentage of Americans who have “hardly any” confidence in Congress has increased sharply since 2003. There were barely any age differentials for most of the past four decades. Now there is almost a 20 percentage-point gap between the youngest and the oldest generations. And it’s the older generations that have become more cynical.

VOETEN fig 2

The graph above looks at confidence in the federal executive. Again, it’s older, not younger Americans, who have less confidence in the executive. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. There was no age gap before the 2000s.

I also looked at confidence in nondemocratic institutions, such as the military, and did not find a similar age gap. So it seems that confidence differences are about the functioning of democratic institutions.

VOETEN fig 3 png

The final graph goes back even further in time. It plots averages for a 100-point trust in government scale developed by the American National Election Studies. The scale combines assessments about whether people “trust the federal government to do what is right,” “that the federal government is run by a few interests or for the benefit of all,” “how much the government wastes tax money,” and “how many government officials are crooked.”

The pattern is similar: In 2012 younger people are on average more trusting in the government than older people, although the difference is not that large. By contrast, in earlier surveys there are no age differences of note.

So what does this mean?

Actual unhappiness about the functioning of the government is not the same thing as abstract preferences for democracy over its alternatives. Perhaps young people just haven’t been paying attention. Maybe good democrats (with the lowercase “d”) should be upset about the way the government is functioning. So, millennials’ relative lack of cynicism about U.S. political institutions could reflect their apathy.

Maybe. But confidence in actual institutions is much more concrete and easier to make sense of than public opinion over imaginary alternatives. Older people are more upset about how U.S. institutions actually work. And they behave like it in the voting booth. Perhaps we should start worrying about old people.

Check out these related posts by Erik Voeten:

That viral graph about millennials’ declining support for democracy? It’s very misleading.

No, people really aren’t turning away from democracy