With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was widely assumed that liberal democracy would inherit the Earth. As a system of government, it appeared to provide good governance and prosperity, as well as individual liberty. That was in stark contrast to the oppression, misery and bankruptcy of communist dictatorships and military strongmen.

But the times, they are a-changing.

“For the past 20 or 30 years, there have been all kinds of worrying signs” for democracy, says Yascha Mounk, a professor of government at Harvard University. “Voter participation has gone down in a lot of countries, people are less and less satisfied with particular governments, they no longer trust politicians, approval ratings for Congress, parliaments, and so on, are very, very low.”

So, a couple of years ago, Mounk decided to take these warning signs seriously and set about trying to establish tools to measure the health of liberal democracies around the world. Liberal democracy, aka Western democracy, is a representative system that emphasizes individual rights.

“How can we figure out if people are just getting more critical, or more demanding of their political system, or whether they are actually disenchanted with democracy in a deep way?”

Mounk and colleague Roberto Stefan Foa decided on three measures of “regime legitimacy.” 

“The first is simply, how important is it to people to live in a democracy?” explains Mounk. “The second is, are they open to authoritarian alternatives to democratic rule, like, say, having the army rule? And the third is whether you see anti-system parties, movements, politicians, who really don’t like the democratic system, who violate its core norms, gain a lot of power?”

Mounk says the findings are startling. They are due to be published in the Journal of Democracy in January.

“Across each of these three dimensions, the warning signs have been flashing red,” he says. “Across the board, young people are disenchanted.”

Among Americans born in 1980 or later — millennials — Mounk found that fewer than one-third say it's essential for them to live in a democracy. By contrast, well over two-thirds of Americans born in the 1930s and '40s say democracy is essential for them.  

It’s a similar story across the world, in some of the oldest established liberal democracies like Britain, France and New Zealand.

Similarly, the proportion of people in America who’d be fine with a military government has leapt from one in 16 in 1995 to one in six by 2015. “But when you look at young and affluent people, it’s gone up from 6 percent to 36 percent — that’s a sixfold increase.

“But the most worrying sign in the United States,” argues Mounk, “is simply the complete erosion of democratic norms in the political system.”

Mounk cites Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and post-election comments, such as suggesting people who burn the American flag should have their citizenship revoked. “All of these are authoritarian behaviors. And the fact that the president-elect is able to engage in them, and that he hasn’t been roundly denounced for it by members of his own party, are real signs of an erosion of democratic norms here in the United States.”

Mounk believes at least part of the explanation for the disenchantment with democracy is economic. Most citizens of established liberal democracies have been contending with stagnant or falling incomes for the past 20 or 30 years. They may believe the system has failed them, while their children face an even more uncertain future.

“I think it’s important to distinguish between democracy and liberal democracy,” continues Mounk. “They don’t want to give up democracy in the sense they want the army to rule. But they have a vision of democracy that is very hierarchical, that gets rid of independent power centers that somehow impede the expression of the popular will, and that’s deeply disdainful of minority rights and human rights.

“So when you look at what Poland or Hungary or Turkey are headed towards, it’s not a matter of them rebelling against democracy as such,” says Mounk. "It’s a matter of them wanting to give an illiberal cast to democracy. So they do want to have elections. They do want to be able vote for a populist leader who claims to speak for the people, to express the popular will in his person. But then they also want to give this leader the right to disregard the interests and rights of minorities, to undermine independent institutions, like courts, to use things like the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Justice in order to serve his political goals.

“So what we’re entering is an era in which the regime form we’ve known — liberal democracy, with its two constituent elements — is breaking apart. And we’re increasingly seeing the rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, taking its place.”

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI