IN 2012 David Souter, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, argued that the greatest threat to American democracy was neither a foreign invasion nor a military coup, but ignorance about how government functions. “An ignorant people can never remain a free people,” he said, referring to Thomas Jefferson, “and democracy cannot survive too much ignorance”. People become willing to hand power to a strongman who promises to solve all their problems. “That is how the Roman Republic fell…That is the way democracy dies, and if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about.”
He was on to something. The World Values Survey, a global study by social scientists from over 100 countries, found that far fewer millennials object to autocracy than their elders. Only 19% of millennials in America and 36% in Europe say that if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, a military takeover would still not be legitimate. Just a third see civil rights as “absolutely essential” to democracy. In America, more than a quarter dismiss the importance of free elections. In 1995 only 16% of American youngsters thought democracy was a “bad” system; by 2011, that number had risen to almost 25%.