Are Democracy’s Days Numbered?

Those who care about things like the future of democracy, the survival of the European Union and NATO breathed a sigh of relief when Emmanuel Macron clinched first place in the tossup first round of France’s presidential election, Sunday. National Front leader Marine Le Pen (France’s Donald Trump) elbowed her way into second place, but the arithmetic of France’s second round is likely to bury her under consolidated support for the more centrist Macron as the other parties rally against her. So France, et le monde, will likely dodge a bullet. But dig down into the data of voter preferences, and a disturbing trend emerges that could become a long-term threat to democracy.

This poll was shared on Twitter by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard professor and analyst of the rising global confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism. It shows the the preferences of French voters in the first round for the 5 candidates, separated by 6 age groups.

Looking at this poll, several obvious things jump out. One is that the mainstream but scandal-plagued conservative, François Fillon did extremely well among voters over 70, and pretty well among voters in their 60s, but tanked everywhere else. The other is that leftwing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who opposes France’s involvement in NATO and who arguably would be well to the left of Bernie Sanders in the US context, did quite well among voters aged 18-24, and not very well anywhere else.

Macron and Le Pen had broader support across the board than the two closest runners up, and that’s why they are advancing to the second round. But look closely at the age groups where Macron did best, and where Le Pen did best. After the 25-34 cohort, Macron did best among the over 70 set. Le Pen tanked hard among the over 70s. Le Pen did best among voters aged 35 to 59.

In fact, Le Pen did so well among voters in the prime of life that, if you subtracted voters over the age of 70, Le Pen would have come in first place, with an average of 24%, over Macron, who would have had an average of 22.8%. I assume I don’t need to explain mortality to you. Subtracting the over-70 voters is exactly what nature will do over the next ten to twenty years. And that is why this poll is scary.

I don’t want to suggest that anything is inevitable. All kinds of unforeseen things could push the political trends that we’re seeing in new directions in future elections, in France and elsewhere. But, as it stands right now, the only voters who were strongly averse to the two political extremes of far right and far left were those voters who are old enough to remember the political horrors of the 1930s and ’40s. That cultural memory is on the verge of dying out.

If current trends continue apace, the threat of our current Brexit/Trump/Le Pen? paradigm might not be all-consuming, but it might still be growing. The coming death of the generation of voters who can remember World War II may give way to a world in which two generations struggle for control over rampant corporatism cannibalizing democracy. An older generation in power increasingly gravitates toward mindless far right authoritarian populism while a younger generation, frustrated with diminishing economic and political opportunity, gravitates toward far left populism. That kind of world, desperate and polarizing toward extremes, is what the West looked like in the 1930s, until that paradigm exploded into the bloodiest war in all of history.

From France to India to the United States, those centrists and small-d democrats who still wield power have an urgent and solemn duty to lead the people toward a new vision of liberal democracy in the 21st Century. Before it’s too late.

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