Today I saw a silly thing on the internet that has a few people upset: this graph showing that fewer millennials believe that living in a democracy is essential:

Percent of people who say it is essential to live in a democracy Source: Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, “The Signs of Democratic Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy via The New York Times

I wasn’t particularly surprised by this because I’m a millenial and I would answer no to that question. There has been some discussion of how the study was performed that raises questions about the validity of the result, but for this article I am going to accept it as accurate and discuss why I think it makes a lot of sense.

For me, the key word here is essential. When I think of things that are essential I think about food, water, shelter. Whether the government appreciates my input is not anywhere near that list.

However, I am definitely privileged in that regard; non-democratic states do decrease survival of marginalized people in practice. At the same time, democratic states also can (and have) decreased survival of marginalized groups, so I’m not convinced that living in a democracy is essential, even for marginalized people. Equality under the law is essential, but that is not a feature unique to democracies.

I think for everyone living in a democracy is better, but not essential. Historically, I would wager that there were a large number of non-democratic societies, and not everyone in them died. Those are just my feelings, but feelings aren’t worth much so I’ll do some analysis with current data to confirm my suspicion.

For something to be essential from a logical perspective it must be present in order to observe something of interest. Let’s take sandwiches as an example and say that bread is essential for a sandwich. This means that if you see a sandwich, it definitely has bread. Another example: if food is essential to live and you see someone living, it is logical to conclude that they have eaten.

Now, for the question at hand: is living in a democracy essential? If it is, every living person we observe must live in a democracy. Otherwise it is not essential. Let’s look at some data on authoritarian regimes and their populations from Wikipedia:

Country Democracy Index Score Democracy Index Category Population
People’s Republic of China 3.14 Authoritarian 1,382,323,332
Russia 3.31 Authoritarian 143,439,832
Ethiopia 3.83 Authoritarian 101,853,268
Vietnam 3.53 Authoritarian 94,444,200
Egypt 3.18 Authoritarian 93,383,574
Iran 2.16 Authoritarian 80,043,146
Democratic Republic of the Congo 2.11 Authoritarian 79,722,624
Sudan 2.37 Authoritarian 41,175,541
Algeria 3.95 Authoritarian 40,375,954
Afghanistan 2.77 Authoritarian 33,369,945
Saudi Arabia 1.93 Authoritarian 32,157,974
Uzbekistan 1.95 Authoritarian 30,300,446
Yemen 2.24 Authoritarian 27,477,600
Angola 3.35 Authoritarian 25,830,958
North Korea 1.08 Authoritarian 25,281,327
Cameroon 3.66 Authoritarian 23,924,407
Ivory Coast 3.31 Authoritarian 23,254,184
Niger 3.85 Authoritarian 20,715,285
Syria 1.43 Authoritarian 18,563,595
Kazakhstan 3.06 Authoritarian 17,855,384
Zimbabwe 3.05 Authoritarian 15,966,810
Chad 1.5 Authoritarian 14,496,739
Guinea 3.14 Authoritarian 12,947,122
Rwanda 3.07 Authoritarian 11,882,766
Burundi 2.49 Authoritarian 11,552,561
Cuba 3.52 Authoritarian 11,392,889
Haiti 3.94 Authoritarian 10,848,175
Azerbaijan 2.71 Authoritarian 9,868,447
Belarus 3.62 Authoritarian 9,481,521
United Arab Emirates 2.75 Authoritarian 9,266,971
Tajikistan 1.95 Authoritarian 8,669,464
Jordan 3.86 Authoritarian 7,747,800
Togo 3.41 Authoritarian 7,496,833
Laos 2.21 Authoritarian 6,918,367
Libya 2.25 Authoritarian 6,330,159
Turkmenistan 1.83 Authoritarian 5,438,670
Eritrea 2.37 Authoritarian 5,351,680
Central African Republic 1.57 Authoritarian 4,998,493
Republic of the Congo 2.91 Authoritarian 4,740,992
Oman 3.04 Authoritarian 4,654,471
Mauritania 3.96 Authoritarian 4,166,463
Kuwait 3.85 Authoritarian 4,007,146
Qatar 3.18 Authoritarian 2,291,368
Gambia 2.97 Authoritarian 2,054,986
Guinea-Bissau 1.93 Authoritarian 1,888,429
Gabon 3.76 Authoritarian 1,763,142
Bahrain 2.79 Authoritarian 1,396,829
Swaziland 3.09 Authoritarian 1,304,063
Djibouti 2.9 Authoritarian 899,598
Equatorial Guinea 1.77 Authoritarian 869,587
Comoros 3.71 Authoritarian 807,118
Total - - 2,536,992,235

Source: Wikipedia: Democracy Index and Wikipedia: List of Countries by Population

We have quite a few people who appear to be living and in non-democratic countries. Therefore we must conclude that living in a democracy is not essential. So it looks like what’s happening is that an increasing number of millennials are correct!

In my view, there are two interesting potential causes of this trend: globalization and language.

Millennials are more connected to people in non-democratic countries (aside from war zones) than ever before. There are now more opportunities than ever before to connect with, talk to, befriend, and understand people from countries and cultures completely unlike any locally. I’ve played video games with people from non-democratic countries and they didn’t seem like they were going to drop dead due to their lack of democracy any time soon!

The shift in language use is to me the more interesting hidden gem of this story–both the graph and the reaction to it. The graph itself reflects changing attitudes by millenials about what it means for something to be essential. It’s a sentiment expressed by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Millenials are worried about affording food and shelter, not whether the government cares about their opinion. This is contrary to the “selfie generation” narrative that a lot of people try to tell, but eating is more important to millennials than having their ideas validated, especially by the government. It’s difficult to convince young people that democracy is essential when they are constantly worrying about things that will absolutely kill them if they do not have them.

This is the essence of the shift and the reaction to it. Where some people see “is democracy essential (for a good life)?”, Millennials see “is democracy essential (for survival)?” The answer to the first question is probably yes; the answer to the second is definitely no.