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When democracy gets old

/ 05:06 AM December 16, 2021

ROME — Last week, US President Joe Biden held a virtual Summit for Democracy, to be followed in roughly a year’s time by a second in-person gathering of leaders from around the world. More than 100 governments were invited to attend.

Granted, not all invitees are democratic stalwarts. In fact, the democratic credentials of many are questionable, to say the least. Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Serbia made the cut, despite their authoritarian leanings, and geopolitical considerations also led the White House to include Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Poland, notwithstanding those countries’ democratic backsliding in recent years.

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In any case, the more interesting question concerns those countries whose democratic credentials are not in doubt. Do they have common characteristics beyond the fact that they hold free and fair elections, maintain the rule of law, and ensure freedom of expression and other individual rights?

One thing is certain: The cohort of true democracies is smaller than it was 10 years ago. Although far-right movements have recently lost some traction in Western Europe, and though populist autocrats have become less popular in Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, and even Russia, there has been a well-documented global trend toward comparatively more authoritarian political systems over the past decade. Among the 146 countries with more than two million residents, Freedom House considered only 39 to be “fully free” in 2020, down from 43 in 2010.

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But a less noticed feature of today’s true democracies is that they tend to have aging populations. Of those 146 larger countries, almost none has both a convincing democracy score (above 85 on Freedom House’s 100-point index) and a relatively young population. The only exceptions are tiny Costa Rica and Uruguay, which have strong democratic institutions and median ages in the mid-30s.

This is not to suggest that political freedom causes populations to age, or that older societies are more conducive to democracy. The only causal link one can assert is that the well-being furnished by open societies tends to lengthen life spans and allow for better family planning.

But in an age of rapid global change and multiplying crises, these demographic trends raise urgent questions. Does a growing share of older voters affect how a country will adapt and respond to international shocks, financial crises, inflationary or deflationary threats, disruptive technologies, migration waves, and all the issues associated with climate change?

Age, of course, bears heavily on psychological traits and political preferences. Older individuals tend to be a little wiser; but they are also more cautious and slower to understand new developments. They are generally less able or willing to adapt to the twists and turns of history. Younger people, by contrast, tend to be flexible, less risk-averse, and more resilient to shocks.

To be sure, these characteristics of individuals are not always reflected at the level of countries. The first mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 came from graying Germany. The oldest society in the world, Japan, is also a world leader in robotics, precisely because it needs to ensure care for the elderly and maintain productivity with fewer and older workers. Clearly, countries with relatively fewer young people are still able to innovate.

In other respects, however, these countries’ demographically driven conservatism (or at least complacency) and lack of a bold long-term vision is undeniable. Consider Europe’s panicked reactions every time there is even a minor wave of migration, or the relative tolerance for deflationary trends in Europe and Japan, where millions of retirees are living off rents. Moreover, democratic countries’ increasing reluctance to take risks in geopolitical crises played no small part in the West’s humiliations in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.

The absence of boldness, openness to novelty, and long-term vision in today’s democracies is not reassuring. Worse, there is no obvious antidote, other than to try to give young people a greater voice. In Germany, where the new coalition government includes the two parties most favored by younger voters, the Greens and the Free Democrats, a reduction of the voting age to 16 has now made an official appearance on the government’s to-do list.

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That may be a prudent reform for other democracies to discuss.

—Project Syndicate

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Federico Fubini is an economics journalist and editor at large at Corriere della Sera. He is the author, most recently, of “Sul Vulcano,” a reflection on people’s psychological reactions to global shocks.

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TAGS: Federico Fubini, Joe Biden, Project Syndicate, Summit for Democracy, World View
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