Once More, With Feeling: Millennials Haven’t Given Up on Democracy

Nick Geiser
4 min readMar 5, 2020

In the months after the 2016 US presidential election this figure was widely circulated:

The figure and others from a paper Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, was widely reported to show that Millennials globally were “rapidly losing interest” or “ha[d] lost faith” in democracy. This interpretation of the argument Foa and Mounk in fact made was far too strong, as they themselves acknowledged in an online exchange shortly after their paper went viral. However, the idea that there is a crisis in commitment to democracy among young people has nevertheless become part of the “conventional wisdom.” The inspiration for this post, in fact, was hearing a prominent British politician invoke the trope in a speech today.

It will be helpful to concentrate for purposes of clarity on “Figure 1” from Foa and Mounk’s 2016 paper “The Democratic Disconnect.” In particular, it is a visualization of their headline claim about declining numbers of young people believing it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Similar points apply to other claims Foa and Mounk make and can be found in several response papers from political scientists.

The data for Figure 1 comes from the 2005 and 2014 editions of the World Values Survey. Specifically, it is based on the following question:

“Q: 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?”

Note that the word “essential” appears nowhere in the formulation of this question. What Foa and Mounk do is aggregate responses from 2005 and 2014 and show the percentage of respondents giving a 10/10 response on a 0/10 scale by birth cohort.

Unfortunately, Figure 1 doesn’t tell us anything about the numbers of those who didn’t give a 10/10, or indeed the mean responses by birth cohort. While we might intuitively expect that the means for earlier cohorts would be higher than later ones, we don’t know how large the difference is. And if you look at the WVS Wave 6 data for the United States, for example, you see that the mean for respondents < 30 is a 7.67, 30–49 is 8.24, and >50 is 8.89. Perhaps we should…

Nick Geiser

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.