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Now Trending: Technocracy

Now Trending: Technocracy

Will Generation X’s preference for technocratic governance create an opening for future authoritarianism?

Sascha Hannig Núñez

War, economic crisis, political turmoil and the pandemic have characterized the past year for many around the world. With these challenges extending into 2023, the democratic structures that safeguard political and civil rights continue to be at risk–as news coverage and indexes tracking democracy reveal on a daily basis.

While politicians urgently need to address these issues, the younger generations will bear responsibility for boosting democratic commitment despite its erosion. Whether these upcoming voters have the incentives, tools, or even the will to act upon this problem remains the question. Complicating the equation is the debate whether it is proper or accurate to generalize young people’s poltical attitudes. After all, voters tend to be nonhomogonous no matter the age. But with his “theory of generations,” Karl Mannheim explains how age cohorts or generations that face the same global phenomena (such as war, financial prosperity, or economic crisis) do share some traits and political behavior. More recently, Ruth Milkman has updated his work in the context of U.S. millennials, to understand, for example, how the 2008 subprime crisis (among other issues) affected their attitudes and behaviors.

One trait that is seeming to gain popularity among the youngest voters, the “Centennials” as the Pew Research Center calls them, is a preference for technocracy—delegating decision-making to “experts” over elected politicians. Technocracy as a form of governance was put to the test with the Covid pandemic, when politicians looked to a suite of scientific specialists to develop emergency policies for entire nations. The problem with this trend is that technocracy is often used to justify illiberal and even authoritarian governments, because the results are seen as more important than the democratic process of electing representatives and holding them to account. This is the case in China, with Russia, even with the more ambiguous Singapore.

While times of crisis often instigate a turn toward, in developed countries, support for “expert decision making” over “politicians,” this trend is even stronger among those aged twenty-nine years and younger, according to data from the World Values Survey (WVS) that has been cross-referenced with data from thirty-eight “free” countries in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. For example, while 55 percent of Canadians overall support technical experts over politicians, up to 71 percent of the twenty-nine and under generation stated their preference for experts. In Taiwan, the numbers go from 65 percent in the general population to 74 percent among those aged twenty-nine and under. In the United States the ratio is less abrupt (from 51 percent to 59 percent), but the increase is still significant. The same is true for other consolidated democracies, such as the Netherlands or New Zealand.

What causes this rejection of the traditional role of politicians in a democracy? One possibility is that, in an era of highly polarized societies, politicians’ decision-making is judged as an ideological interpretation of reality over fact. On top of that, disinformation and fake news inject more uncertainty and doubt, which might influence a generation already highly sensitive to these methods of deception and how some politicians may figure into them. Recent experiences with Covid-19 pandemic policies offer an example. Some populations were flooded with misinformation and unscientific responses for combating the virus. In Brazil, people generally distrusted the vaccines, and even the government was skeptical of them. Some countries  defended untested treatments such as Remdesivir and Interferon. Interferon was especially controversial when imported from Cuba. In other instances, governments took advantage of the health emergency to abuse their power: In Hong Kong the pandemic was used as an excuse to crack down on democracy, with health controls suppressing dissent.

One outlier is Greece, which has the lowest support for such behavior. Greece was one of the European countries whose youth (especially millennials) was most affected by the 2008 financial crisis. Unsuccessful policy implementation and lack of economic opportunities during the crisis directly impacted the country’s expectations for the future.

Fig. 1. WVS Q. 236. Having experts, not government, making decisions (…) Built with Data Studio. S. Hannig, 2022.

The main risk of technocracy gaining popularity is that it can erode democratic societies. In authoritarian governments, the technocrats become the shields to justify unilateral actions. The Soviet Union, numerous countries in Latin America, the People’s Republic of China—even making the case for exporting “effective governance”—are all examples of this playing out.

Newly formed democracies often have lived experience with this scheme of “seeking validation” and thus can be less inclined to support technocrats. In Chile, support for expert decision-makers is low on average and even lower among Centennials. The 2019 protests aimed at ending “Pinochet’s dictatorship legacy,” which had been technocratic. Nevertheless, the new constitution that was a supposed to challenge this was rejected by 62 percent of the population. Most of the subsequent proposals include consulting and giving power to experts.

Stronger support for technocrats is already a fact and a threat, but that support can become a strength if linked to a narrative that enhances a commitment to liberal democracy. A country whose youth prefers that policies are constructed by experts and not politicians does not necessarily exhibit weak liberal political values. In a broader analysis, some countries with strong support for democracy and young voters that did not exhibit antisocial behavior, like the Netherlands, also hope to further incorporate experts in political decision-making. Democracies have always consulted with knowledgeable individuals, both regarding questions of development but also when faced with a crisis. This has been true for Latin American countries, and for post-2008 Europe.  Nevertheless, the practice can lead to a lack of trust in conventional democratic decision-making and into support for other paths to elitism or even authoritarianism.

Keeping this in mind, it might be worth channelling this urge for technical expertise within democracies rather than squashing it completely. Considering technical arguments and publicizing them in the policy-making process could boost trust in a fact-based democracy. In this context, young democrats can be an asset for democratic consolidation if they better understand trending challenges. Taking action now to expand the support for liberal democracies among the youth may help to counter illiberal trends currently spreading around the world, whether through education, the judicious use of technology, or the training of politicians and experts alike.

Sascha Hannig Núñez is a Chilean analyst of international relations and a published novelist. She currently supports the think tank IDD Chile as an associate researcher, and the Institute for Global Governance Research at Hitotsubashi Univesity, Japan, as an assistant.

Image: Skull, Book and Oil Lamp, Pablo Picasso, 1946 (WikiArt)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyPolitical Philosophy