Young westerners across the world losing faith in democracy - even in New Zealand

The conflict in the United States might feel far away, but democracy is feeling the strain in New Zealand too.

The conflict in the United States might feel far away, but democracy is feeling the strain in New Zealand too.

Through a year rife with totalitarian-tinged populism and voter rebellion the world over, New Zealand has seemed relatively stable.

The legitimacy of our democratic institutions is rarely challenged. We don't seem set to vote in a Trump-like figure, or dramatically restructure our country with a Brexit-like vote. We don't even want a new flag.

But new research reveals our faith in democracy is faltering in a similar pattern to one seen overseas. 

The unreleased Journal of Democracy study shows that 29.3 percent of Kiwis born in the 1980s say it is "essential" to live in a democracy.

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This is a dramatic drop off from those in older cohorts - almost half of those born in the 1970s believe it is essential, while almost two thirds of those born in the 1930s say as much. 

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Russians are much more likely than Kiwis to say they prefer a strong leader to ...

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Russians are much more likely than Kiwis to say they prefer a strong leader to parliamentary democracy.

The data is based on the World Values Survey and was collected between 2010 and 2014

It roughly matches the trend in other longstanding liberal democracies, with Americans, Brits, and Australians born in the 1980s at a similar number.

Just over one in five Kiwis said they would prefer to have the country led by a strong leader rather than parliament and elections. This is a slight rise from the 1990s but is one of the lower numbers seen around the world - with about three quarters of Russians and close to one third of Americans saying the same.

Co-author Roberto Stefan Foa told Stuff that while New Zealand's institutions were performing much better than some other longstanding democracies, the trends were pointing downward.

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"The warning signs are not flashing as strongly as they are in the United Kingdom or the USA, but the situation is not as good as it once was," Foa said.

"You can see that particularly in that intergenerational cohort trend - that faith in democracy is not as strong as it once was."

Foa emphasised that the research showed cracks in the liberal democratic consensus - not a collapse. 

"It's a movement from an 'end of history' where liberal democracy was the only option to a situation where it is one option."

"Right now New Zealand, Australia, even the United States are at points of very high democratic consolidation. There is a long way to fall before democratic institutions begin to lose shape - the point is that we are moving backwards."

​Credit: Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, "The Signs of Democratic Deconsolidation," Journal of Democracy

While we were somewhat isolated from the more dramatic movements, the same trends that were playing out overseas were happening here too - particularly an increasingly isolated political class and higher rates of inequality.

Foa said seemingly small movements could mean a lot - you didn't need half of the country to reject democracy for the system to flounder.

"If we look at the data from Iran, Venezuela, Russia - a lot of people there will still be saying democracy is important. It will just be slightly lower than in western democracies.

"In Venezuela in the 1990s, before they elected [Hugo] Chevez, the upper limit of people saying that democracy was a bad way to run the country was at about 30 percent. If you get to a point where over half of the sample is saying democracy is bad, you probably won't be able to conduct this kind of survey any more."

 - Stuff


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