By Aiden Correia
On top of contemporary challenges such as the pressing climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing inequality, democracies have yet another trial to face. Around the world, youth are increasingly losing faith in democracy (Foa, et al. 2020). This trend among the global youth is a dangerous development, primarily because the youth backing is vital for democratic viability. Furthermore, it has provided a ‘power-vacuum’ for populists to enter and garnish support among the disenfranchised and frustrated adolescents. This further undermines the workings of democracy, causing a whole range of problems.
For democratic systems to remain strong and fully-functional systems, they need to acknowledge their flaws regarding the inclusion of youth engagement and work on tools to foster the hopes and faith of the young. This paper will first make a case for the importance of youth in sustaining democracy. It will then move on to provide an insight into the causes and effects of this particular political apathy. Consequently, it will conclude with a case favoring the active engagement of young people and youth organizations in government. All of this will ultimately partly answer the question democracies all over the world are struggling with: how can we maintain democracy in the face of adversity?
The necessity of youth support
According to Fukuyama, the fall of the Berlin wall signified the ‘end of history’. With the number of democratic regimes increasing and the system being generally supported among citizens, Fukuyama believed that the world has finally reached the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1992).
Although he was right on some accounts and democracy continues to be the most widespread and supported ideology up until today, the end stage is still far from being reached. Instead democracy is facing both internal as well as external challenges. External challenges include the threat of extremism to democracy, as showcased by the 9/11 attacks, the resurgence of communist ideologies through the rise of China and Russia, and economic instability such as the one caused by the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding on to this, there are internal threats such as growing political apathy in democratic systems, and the rise of populism and other extremist ideas.
This paper argues that one of democracy’s main challenges is that it has lost the faith amongst its citizens, and particularly the youth. Youth contribution is vital for democratic perseverance for multiple reasons. Firstly, youth empowerment is central for preventing violent extremism. Disenfranchised youth with little belief in liberal democracy, are more prone to become subject to extremism and violence. According to the Community’s Democratic and Security Dialogue report young people with little access to liberal democracy, may seek for alternative means to achieve their needs such as extremist groups like ISIS (2017, 10). Hence, by fostering youth support, liberal democracies face less internal threats to their livelihood.
Additionally, youth voices are vital in helping societies resolve international conflicts peacefully. Based on a year-long research project, the report also found that for liberal democracies to successfully achieve international stability and security, youth would have to be embraced as partners in security. This is predominantly due to the fact that “youth – and women -, are critical to effective strategies to deal with grievances before they mushroom into violent causes” (Albright, et al. 2017, 12).
According to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, the largest online community and repository of electoral knowledge, youth support and representation in democracy also enhances the domestic political processes. This because individuals will feel as though they actually have a voice and will funnel their frustrations into political action. The support of democracy among young people is especially important in transitional democracies, whose lasting livelihood depend on individuals bringing democratic values to life. When youth go underrepresented, they will in turn lose faith in democracy, undermining its values and sustenance.
Hence, there is a certain necessity of youth support and trust in sustaining democracy (Chevalier 2019, 418). If democratic regimes fail to either recapture or maintain this support, they will only continue to weaken in the face of global adversity. Before moving on to possible solutions on how to get youth (back) into politics, the next section will first underscore the causes and effects behind the increased political apathy amongst youth.
The loss of youth support of democracy: causes and effects
In 2020, the Centre of the Future of Democracy published a rather ambitious report, drawing upon the largest-ever global dataset on democratic legitimacy around the world. They stated that across the globe, “younger generations have become steadily more dissatisfied with democracy” (1). They also analyzed the surge of both left-wing and right-wing populism in liberal democracies and attempt to answer whether these leaders can have a positive effect on youth sentiment and support of democracy. Throughout their report, they explain the democratic disconnect by drawing upon multiple causes. For instance, the authors cite ‘rising inequality’ around the world as an explanation behind political apathy amongst youth. As a result of the prospect of an economically unstable future – high household debt, less access to the housing market, increased rental costs, and more dependance on relatives and family – individuals become less content with the results of democracy. This might ultimately result in the shift to populism, as these leaders often tap into the dissatisfaction of the young.
Another cause in the expansion of youth unemployment and the rising uncertainty of stable contracts and pay. Especially after the financial crisis of 2008, the level of satisfaction with democracy among youth decreased dramatically. A final cause the scholars offer is something they refer to as ‘transition fatigue’ which essentially alludes to the idea that the new generation of voters is now more concerned with the functioning of democracy, as opposed to simply its ideals. Increasingly, “the legitimacy of democracy hinges on its performance – or failure – to face the mounting social challenges” (19). Exemplary of this trend of ‘transition fatigue’ is the decrease of satisfaction with democracy as soon as countries joined the European Union. Although youth initially believed that EU accession would have mainly positive effects such as the easing of trade restrictions and the harmonization with EU laws, reality quickly caught up and optimism faded as soon as accession was attained. In reality, citizens were faced with negative domestic political challenges such as endemic corruption and spatial inequality (Foa, et al. 2020, 21).
As a result of democracy failing to attain some of its promises, young people are increasingly fed up (Gray 2016). When asked what frustrated people the most about government leaders in their country, about one fourth of the respondents cited the ‘lack of action’. Current affairs such as the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing racial and wealth inequality that continues on, demand immediate drastic and perhaps even radical responses, but governments have been slow to react. This has led to feelings of frustration and anger among young people, and has resulted in large protests all over the world. Take for instance the climate strikes that are happening globally and the large Black Lives Matter protests that spread over the world like wildfire. The lack of action has, quite understandably, made young people more unwilling to put their trust and hopes in the democratic processes.
As a result of youth disenchantment with democracy, we have seen the increase of populism and other political extremities in liberal democracies. Populist leaders, both left- and right-wing, have tapped into this feeling of political alienation among young people and given a voice to the unrepresented (Foa and Mounk 2019, 1017). In Greece, for instance, voters below the age of 25 are twice as likely to vote for an extremist party than voters over the age of 55 (Sakellariou 2015). Similarly, there is a rise of extremist movements, particularly under the label of ‘Alt-Right’ which refer to the spread of intolerant ideas, predominantly online. As a result, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and queer-phobic hate crimes have increased (Foa and Mounk 2019, 1018). This, of course, comes as a shock to democracy, and it threatens some of its core values such as tolerance.
How to get the youth back into democracy?
Now that we have established that youth support is vital for democratic sustainability, and that the loss of faith has resulted in threats such as populism, this paper will make a case in favor of an increase in youth participation in liberal democracies.
In order to get the youth back into democracy, democratic systems first need to create the space and opportunities for young people to participate as youth must be motivated to get involved (Yohalem and Martin 2007). This can be done on a more individualistic base, with parents and peers playing a large role in motivation. Political structures, however, are then responsible for providing the youth with clear pathways for involvement. Increasing youth voices in civic society and consequently democracy has an incredibly positive individual impact. According to scholars Morsillo and Prilleltensky, participation “enhances sociopolitical awareness, self-expression, enhanced sense of control and social responsibility, hopefulness, and the development community participation skills such as planning and communication” (Morsillo and Prilleltensky 2007, 736). These are all tools that the youth need to shape the future. A future in which we can only hope they will continue to nurture the foundation of democracy.
Government structures should also make more of an effort to counter the shrinking of civil spaces. Here civil spaces refers to a “environments in which youth participation in civil action is fostered – the pathways, structures, and vehicles that provide opportunities for young people to engage in critical discussion, dialogue, and action” (Richards-Schuster and Dobbie 2011, 235). Over time, however, we have “witnessed a persistent silencing of civil society that narrowed down the civic space significantly” (Deželan and Yurttagüler 2018, 4). This can explain why youth have increasingly drawn upon more ‘radical’ actions to get democratic governments to listen (such as squatting actions) instead of using more conventional manners (like voting). As a result youth and organizations representing youth interest feel as though they lack the tools and ability to truly become agencies of social change, which can cause frustration and hopelessness. (Deželan and Yurttagüler 2018, 20). This trend is one that democracies should grow aware of, and then tackle. They need to collaborate more with youth people and include them in democratic activity. They should provide them with a voice, lest populist leader will do it for them.
Some ways to do this is by pushing for more transparency of governmental actions so young people can follow along. Preferably, democratic countries also secure long-term funding for watchdog and other organizations advocating youth issues. This could perhaps ensure that democracies will take action on the topics that are a priority to youth such as battling climate change and ensuring a securer housing market. Another vital action to take is for governments to design “incentives for public officials to interact in an open, sincere and prompt manner” (Deželan and Yurttagüler 2018, 21). This is something that diplomats can have a hand in too.
It is widely known that young people are the future. Although this is a given fact, it is not a natural transition. It is the responsibility of democracies to provide the youth with the tools to shape said-future. For democracy to remain viable, this means they need to not only restore the faith in democracy, but they also need to start including the young in the democratic process. Democracy is about providing everyone with a voice. The youth are willing to talk; governments just need to start to listen.
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Deželan, Tomaž, and Laden Yurttagüler. Shrinking Democratic Civic Space for Youth. Strasbourg: European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of Youth, 2018.
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