By Dustin McKissen, Partner and Co-founder at Clustered Economic Development
Like pizza and cheeseburgers, democracy is something everyone is supposed to love, right?
Turns out, not everyone loves democracy quite as much as they used to. Over the last two years, research has shown that a growing number of young people—those under forty—have lost faith in democracy. Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk released a study in late 2016 that found:
Only nineteen percent of millennials feel it is illegitimate for the military to assume control of a country if an elected government is failing to do its job.
Support for democracy has decreased every year since 2005.
Globally, there are fewer democracies today than there were in the 1990s.
It would be easy to dismiss this data as yet another example of how (allegedly) damaged and dangerous millennials are. However, dismissing the data doesn’t make the data go away. Dismissing the data also doesn’t deal with the fact that a decline in support for democracy is historically tied to the economy.
In his book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, historian Ira Katznelson writes that calls for a dictator to assume control in the United States during the early days of the Depression were relatively common. Walter Lippman, at the time America’s most influential journalist, wrote just prior to Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration that “a mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” Alfred E. Smith, a popular former presidential candidate and governor of New York, said that in the face of the Depression the nation should wrap the Constitution in a “piece of paper and put it on a shelf” until the crisis had ended.
The 1920s and ’30s show that a rejection of established political values can be the byproduct of the economic system not working for a significant percentage of the population.
The decline in support for democracy over the last twenty or so years isn’t a coincidence, and it’s not a side effect of too many participation trophies, or whatever millennial stereotype one chooses to use. While the range of birth years for millennials has changed several times, the generation was originally defined as those who entered adulthood around the year 2000.
If you entered adulthood around the 2000 (like I did), you have lived your entire adulthood and roughly half your life in an abnormal housing market. Your young adulthood began just as the housing market started to boom. In your mid to late twenties, the market crashed and brought the global economy to its knees. In the aftermath of the crash, developers stopped building, and as a result, your thirties have seen another booming housing market driven by a lack of available homes.
Pre-recession, when the labor market was strong, wildly overpriced homes were purchased with exotic and ultimately toxic financial instruments. Today, housing is often unaffordable because there are just too few homes on the market. During the recession, when homes were cheap, unemployment was high and job security was low.
Housing is about much more than just plywood, shingles, and mortgage insurance.
Our perception about where we live, and why we live there plays a powerful role in our understanding of the world and whether we’ve gotten a fair shake in life. If an entire generation has lived its adulthood in a market where the only time housing was affordable was also the time when the labor market was the worst, a decline in support for existing economic and political systems is inevitable.
Teaching people that democracy and capitalism are the best—and only legitimate—ways to structure a society only goes so far if those values are doing nothing to provide Americans with the basic necessities of life.
That isn’t to say the alternatives to democracy and capitalism are preferable.
What it does say is that the impact of a perpetually distorted and faulty housing market has a bigger impact than just keeping young people living with their parents longer. A lack of affordable housing and NIMBYism is not by any means the only reason for a decline in support for democracy, but given the central role the Great Recession has played in this century’s politics, it’s hard to argue that housing has nothing to do with the data in Mounk’s study.
In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration realized that saving capitalism and democracy might require intervening in the free market. If people don’t have the necessities of life—a safe home, food on their table, a job—they also don’t have a reason to support the system that makes obtaining the necessities so difficult, if not impossible.
The data in Mounk’s research is troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. If we want people to believe in the political and economic values that form the foundation of our society, they need to have at least a fair shot at getting the basics we all need to survive the modern world.
Like affordable housing.
Dustin McKissen is a partner and co-founder at Clustered Economic Development. He is also a columnist for VentureBeat, Inc., Entrepreneur Quarterly, and CNBC, and a two-time LinkedIn Top Voice on management and culture. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Prescott College and a master’s degree in public management from Northern Arizona University.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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