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Why many young Indians and Americans have authoritarian leanings

columns Updated: Dec 30, 2016 01:09 IST
Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s supporters imagine him as a wrecking ball to the old political order. In that sense, he has much in common with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.(Reuters)

A recent study of attitudes among Indian students offered an ominous finding. Young Indians are sceptical about the merits of democracy and are open to the idea of authoritarian rule. According to the Yuva Nagarik Meter compiled by researchers at the Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness, two thirds of Indian college students agree that “India should have only one strong political party at the Centre to rule the country.” Over half (53%) of college students agreed that the military should rule India for several years. The study, which produced similar results a year ago, suggests that many young Indians have clearly authoritarian leanings.

Observers have debated the merits and methodology of the report, but even if those numbers were halved they would still be troublingly high. That these are the opinions of college students – ostensibly among the more curious, well-informed members of society – is doubly worrying.

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This apparent fatigue or impatience with democracy among younger citizens isn’t limited to India. Researchers in the West have also noticed a trend of youthful apathy to democracy. Using data from World Values Surveys, the Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk sketched the rise of authoritarian sentiment in the United States and Europe in a report released last January.

While nearly 75% of Americans born in the 1930s believe it is “essential” to live in a democratic system, barely a quarter of Americans born in the 1980s feel the same way. Only a tenth of Americans born in the 1930s believe that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, but that number doubles to over 20% for Americans born in the 1980s. Nearly half of young Americans would be open to having a “strong leader” not beholden to elections and legislatures (only a quarter of older Americans share that view). According to Mounk’s study, similar trends are visible in Western European countries and in Australia and New Zealand.

Again, these reports have been hotly contested and debated, with other political scientists claiming that support for democracy in the West has remained fairly robust and consistent over the decades. But even Mounk’s most trenchant critic, Erik Voeten at Georgetown University, concedes that there seems to be a clear uptick in authoritarian sentiment among young Americans, with people under 35 more willing to countenance the rule of a strong leader or even the military than ever before.

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These findings have acquired greater meaning in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, who consciously styled himself during his campaign as a strongman leader removed from the conventional political class, declaiming at the Republican convention, “I alone can fix it!” He will begin his presidency with a great deal of power; both houses of Congress are in his grasp and he has over 100 appointments to make in the judiciary.

Trump encouraged the idea that a vote for him was not just a vote for the Republican candidate, but a rejection of the existing system. His supporters imagine him as a wrecking ball to the old political order. In that sense, he has much in common with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The author Chetan Bhagat recently asked his Twitter followers – most of whom are fairly young – whether they would rather have Modi ruling the country without democracy or democracy without Modi; 55% of over 10,000 votes cast opted for Modi.

This is not to say that authoritarian dictatorship is just around the corner, but it does highlight a problem shared by India and the United States, the world’s largest pluralist, ostensibly liberal democracies. The institutions and political assumptions that sustain the democratic systems of both countries inspire less and less confidence.

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There are many reasons, of course, to be suspicious and critical of the political class. In my travels in both countries, I hear people often dismissing their representatives as corrupt or beholden to special interests. Endemic corruption in India has certainly driven many young Indians towards more authoritarian positions. In the US, the unseemly “gridlock” in Congress during the latter years of the Obama presidency (caused in large part by cynical Republican obstructionism) no doubt fuelled disgust at the political establishment, paving the way for “outsider” figures like Bernie Sanders and the triumphant Trump.

But I don’t think this authoritarian surge is just a response to the malfeasance and incompetence of politicians. Larger forces are at work. The rise of authoritarianism among young people points to the big questions facing liberal democracy in the 21st century. How does a society reconcile the great dislocations and disparities caused by economic globalisation within the political confines of a nation-state? How can societies preserve and strengthen liberal, “civic republican” values when market forces and the demands of the digital economy are reshaping educational and cultural priorities? At the moment, liberal democrats don’t seem to have compelling answers.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories

The views expressed are personal