In the June 16th Agenda Weekly for the World Economic Forum, there is an article by Keith Breene titled “Millennials are rapidly losing interest in democracy.” It delves into this proposition from a number of angles. The number of millennials who are in favor of a leader who is free from the checks applied by a legislature and free elections has grown considerably in countries around the world including the United States and Mexico. Millennials are also less interested in voting. In addition, there has been an ongoing decrease in the number of people in this group who feel that living in a democracy is very important to them. Within the last thirty years, there has also been an ongoing decline in trust in democratic institutions like legislatures and courts, and this is reflected in the fundamental attitudes of the millennials. There is a discrepancy in attitudes towards the military taking over a democratic government, when the latter is experiencing major problems of performance. More than twice as many older people are afraid of such an intrusion compared to younger people. And, although interest in politics tends to increase as one gets older, young people today are beginning from a lower base of interest than previous generations of young people.
This loss of connection with politics represents a very dangerous state of affairs for democracies around the world. Do we really want to go back in time to an era of predominance of authoritarian governments? Paradoxically, it would appear that there may be elements in our modern technological living environments that are predisposing younger people to want to give up the political freedom for which their forefathers fought for so long to obtain.
Modern technological living environments are making life increasingly frictionless, increasingly easy to experience. More and more things are done by technology, relatively free of human involvement. Devices, machines, computers and robots are taking over the processes and ultimately the narrative of life. There is less and less need for people to expend great effort and to experience great friction in order to get something done. This frictionless living environment is experienced as a vacuum where people sink into numbness, feel a sense of powerlessness and withdraw into a world of dreams. In relation to the external world, such people are seen as being passive, increasingly incapable of taking charge of tasks that require a long-term sustained effort. Young people, in particular, today want it all and they want it now. Technology has taught them at an early age that in so many areas of life today, things can be accomplished without friction-filled narratives. And, of course, the implicit line of reasoning would go, if this is true for some areas of life, why can’t it be true for all areas of life? Why do there have to be messy situations that don’t lend themselves to clear simple frictionless solutions?
Politics in a democracy is such a messy complex situation. One has to work hard to try to implement one’s plans both on the local level and on the national level. What is required is meaningful participation and constant vigilance. In a democracy one can fight for what one wants, but one usually doesn’t totally get one’s way. One has to compromise with other people. This leads to a frequent sense of frustration and disappointment. For people like the millennials who want it all and want it now, such frequent frustration and disappointment can become unbearable, intolerable.
Better not to put oneself in a situation where such unbearable intolerable frustration can take place in the first place. Better not to get involved in the flowing blendable continual mess of politics. Better to let one strong man or woman take over and configure a direction for the nation and make one’s decisions for oneself with regard to taking the best courses of political action. This way a person doesn’t have to thrash about and struggle to pull oneself out of one’s numbness in order to begin to participate in a meaningful way in the complex mixed-up human interactions that are involved in democracy. According to surveys, American millennials did not tend to be in favor of Trump. At the same time, a large number of them didn’t bother to vote against him either. One can only wonder if, on some unconscious level, they did want a strong man like Trump to make all the important political decisions. In many countries, where the roots of democratic institutions are less firmly planted, the increase in open vocal support for authoritarian leaders among millennials has been much more marked.
This passivity in politics is also manifest in other areas of the millennials’ lives. Many millennials are having trouble finding jobs and leaving home. It is as if the ongoing experiential vacuum in which they live is stimulating them to regress and move backward with their lives rather than grow and move forward. It is as if the experiential vacuum that has been created by technology is infantilizing them. Perhaps, it is as if, not finding much grounding in their modern technological living environments, millennials are dying psychologically by moving backward towards the womb in their minds. They recreate the womb - the foundational sense of grounding - in their heads and more precisely in their dreams. However, such a mentality leaves them susceptible to being mobilized in the external world by an authoritarian leader who can give them grounding there as well as become a source of a meaningful life narrative in the external world.
On another level, the lack of organic friction created by modern technology results in a lack of opportunities for traction to pull oneself out of one’s numbness and to then make organic imprints to feel alive and preserve some of them for a surrogate immortality in order to prepare for death. Many millennials live out their desired meaningful narratives for making and preserving imprints primarily in their dreams, which means they are not really making or preserving their desired individual organic imprints at all. Of course, this is where an authoritarian leader come in. He invites people to merge their individual narratives with his narrative and thus to participate in his individual imprints by merging their imprints with his imprints to form larger collective imprints. Millennials are susceptible to this approach in the same way they are susceptible to the ravages of the opioid epidemic.
All in all, this is a very dangerous state of affairs not only for millennials but also for the democracies in which they live, and strategies have to be developed to deal with it effectively or else modern democracy may be translated into something not at all recognizably democratic.
© 2017 Laurence Mesirow