Recently, the George W. Bush Institute and the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement recently released a report on the state of the American Democracy. One of the reasons this report caught my eye is that we don’t see a lot of research on our democratic experience, let alone one that jointly led by two former political leaders that were on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Broadly defined, the purpose of the research was to explore the public’s thoughts and feelings on those bedrock elements of our democratic society, concepts such as free and fair election and equal protection under the law, just to name a couple.
One of the questions the surveyors wanted to know was just how important it was to live in a country where it was governed democratically. As you might imagine, there wasn’t a great of difference in the responses when they were separated for political party and race; a majority of every party and every racial group believed it was important to live a democratically governed society.
However, the same could not be said for age. Interestingly enough, as you looked at demographic groups from older to younger, the percentage of individuals who believed that living in a democratic society was important gradually decreased. 77 percent of those over age 65 felt living in a democratic society was important; that support eroded to just 34 percent of individuals younger than age 25. Even a majority of those under age 30 felt that living in a democratic society was not important.
Looking at these data points, I saw the pattern, but was still a little surprised by what I was seeing.
I can understand why older individuals prize and value our democratic society. An entire generation of Americans felt the existential crisis of whether our country would still stand after the threats of Nazism in Europe and Japanese aggression in the Pacific. It was only after our nation rallied behind each other, were the Allies able to be victorious in World War II.
And even after World War II, military menacing did not stop. For decades, a new generation was faced with the real danger of nuclear annihilation at a moment’s notice thanks to the Cold War and our struggle against the Soviet Union.
On Christmas Day 1991, the Red Banner flew from the Kremlin one last time and the Soviet Union collapsed. America had won the Cold War and the world was seen to be saved from mutually assured destruction. That was 27 years ago.
And remember those under 25 that don’t believe living in a democratic society isn’t important? A bit of coincidence? I think not.
Right now in America, roughly 30 percent of our citizens are under age 25. At most, they have never known a world that is as relatively peaceful and as affluent as our world is today. In the least, they have never had to duck and cover under a desk or understand what a “Fallout Shelter” was. For the most part, they have never had to experience the crises our democracy has to endure.
Instead what do they see? They see a democracy that is nothing like the society it purports to represent. They see the halls of power over-represented by old, male Caucasians. They see a federal government (and perhaps even a state government) that is controlled by those with deep pockets and having the inability to deal with the pressing issues of our day.
So, who’s right? Both sides are. Our American democracy is one of the greatest governmental experiments ever tested. It’s not always been easy, but it has worked to govern a small collection of 13 colonies and 4 million people to a large country of 50 states and nearly 320 million people. Have we always hit the mark? No. There have been times when groups have been denied rights and injustices have taken too long to remedy.
But, we have always endeavored to get it right. And in order for us to get it right, we have to continue to believe in the value of what we are trying to improve. This is a great nation. At least it’s very least, it beats the alternative.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.