The framers of the U.S. Constitution wrote in its preamble that one of the purposes of the document was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

But according to a recent poll from Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP), a majority of younger Americans don’t feel that security – instead believing that our democracy is under threat.

The poll from IOP found that 52% of young Americans see the United States’ democracy as either “in trouble” or “failed.”

Regarding how young Americans see U.S. democracy:

  • 7% see it as a “healthy democracy.”
  • 27% see the U.S. as a “somewhat functioning democracy.”
  • 39% view the United States as a “democracy in trouble.”
  • 13% view it as a “failed democracy.”

“After turning out in record numbers in 2020, young Americans are sounding the alarm,” John Volpe, director of polling at IOP, said of the results.

“When they look at the America they will soon inherit, they see a democracy and climate in peril—and Washington as more interested in confrontation than compromise. Despite this, they seem as determined as ever to fight for the change they seek.”

These numbers are important – especially because millennials and Generation Z already comprise a larger share of the electorate than Baby Boomers.

And by 2032, millennials and Gen Z will make up 55% of eligible voters.

Americans Voting

Photo Credit: Center for American Progress

If these generations no longer believe in our democracy, what will be the result?

What’s even more frightening is that 35% of young Americans believe that in their lifetimes, it is likely the United States will see a second Civil War. And 25% think it’s likely that at least one state will secede from the Union.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, in which he warned about the dangers of forgetting the grave battle that previous generations had waged for freedom.

He lamented the deaths of the patriots who fought the Revolutionary War, and the collective loss of memory of the war’s cost: “A history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received.”

Lincoln wrote, “Those histories are gone … They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.”

And without those memories, Lincoln worried that Americans may willingly acquiesce to an authoritarian figure, and hence lose their hard-won liberties.

As a solution, Lincoln proposed: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” (emphasis in original).

It’s a frightening sign for the United States that a majority of younger generations see the U.S. as either a troubled or failed democracy.

Sometimes, younger Americans especially may fall into the trap of thinking that for our democracy to be working, it shouldn’t be difficult or time-consuming to change our laws.

But they would do well to remember that the difficultly of changing our laws, and of enacting new legislation, is a feature of our representative democracy, not a flaw. It’s precisely that slow-moving train of change that protects our freedoms and liberties.

And to rebuild confidence in our representative democracy, let’s consider taking a page out of our 16th president’s playbook; let’s work to increase our general intelligence, sound morality, and reverence for our constitution and laws.

Photo from Shutterstock.