Federal Politics

Why democracy is a victim of its own success

BENJAMIN HERSCOVITCH on the young's blase attitude towards elected government

With only 60 per cent of respondents saying ''democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'', the results of the latest Lowy Institute poll should cause alarm. Generation Y's attitude is even more sobering: A mere 39 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds think democracy is the best system of government.

Results like these almost inevitably prompt soul-searching. How can a country that requires all new citizens to pledge to share democratic beliefs hold democracy in such low esteem?

Perversely, democracy may actually be the victim of its own success. Democracy could well be undervalued precisely because it is spreading worldwide and has prevailed over its ideological adversaries.

Not surprisingly, some blame the lack of democratic fervour on capitalism and its ''consumerist'' culture. Tim Soutphommasane, lecturer at Monash University and senior project manager at Per Capita, recently argued in The Sydney Morning Herald that the Lowy poll results fit into the broader trend of Australians seeing themselves primarily as consumers and investors rather than as citizens.

Just as predictably, others like Sophie Mirabella MP have called relativism to account. She claims that relativism has produced a generation more interested in iPhones and Facebook than democratic rights and freedoms.

By blaming ''isms'' like capitalism and relativism, Soutphommasane and Mirabella give us convenient ready-made villains. They also excuse us from having to deal with the uncomfortable question of democracy's own role in its declining popularity.

The disappointing behaviour of our elected representatives, the professionalisation of politics, and the lowering levels of community involvement in the political process are all much-discussed examples of democracy doing itself a disservice.

Equally important is the way in which democracy's success has contributed to its diminished standing. By becoming the global gold standard of legitimacy and regularly replacing dictators, democracy is now an almost mundane and commonplace political institution.

Although there were very few democracies for much of the 20th century, democracy is now flourishing. According to Freedom House, between 1972 and 2011, the proportion of free countries increased from 29 per cent to 45 per cent, while the proportion of countries that were not free decreased from 46 per cent to 24 per cent.

It is relevant in this regard that 74 per cent of respondents 60 years and older in the Lowy poll support democracy. Australians over 60 were adults during the height of the Cold War.

Unlike Australians over 60 who saw democracy challenged by fascism and then communism, Generation Y has only really known what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the ''end of history''. They were born about the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union when liberal democracy achieved its ''unabashed victory'' over authoritarian central planning and Marxism stopped being fashionable.

Far from being blinded by the pursuit of wealth or relativistic thinking, members of Generation Y might actually have a more blase attitude towards democracy simply because it has not faced serious ideological competitors in their lifetime.

To be sure, jihadists, military strongmen, and Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks oppose democracy. However, they do not pose a real threat to democratic rule in well-established democracies, and the tide of history seems to be turning in their own countries.

Even China's authoritarian brand of capitalism does not look like a viable long-term alternative to liberal democracy. The Arab Spring arguably never became a Jasmine Spring because the Chinese Communist Party has enjoyed the legitimacy dividend of year-on-year high GDP growth. However, when the Chinese bull begins to tire, the democratic wave will probably be strong enough to breach the Great Wall of China.

Irrespective of China's fate, the fact that democracy is largely unopposed in the field of ideas and continues its seemingly irrepressible march on unelected leaders makes it seem rather unremarkable. It is therefore hardly surprising that members of Generation Y see democracy as a given that need not be treasured.

As deep as democracy's image crisis might be, it is simplistic to only point the finger at capitalism and relativism. To understand democracy's falling popularity, we also need to look at democracy's growing global strength.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.