Have young people stopped believing in democracy?
According to received wisdom, young people are going off democracy. So what is happening, and can this trend be reversed?
By Marie Le Conte
Over the past few years there have been a number of negative or, at best, divisive events in European politics. The EU struggled to respond as a bloc to the migrant crisis that started in 2015; Euroscepticism rose in prominence while populism and the far-right gained support across the continent. Another concerning dynamic — not unique to Europe — has been young people’s growing lack of faith in democracy. According to a 2016 Journal of Democracy paper, just under 45% of Europeans born in the 1980s think it is ‘essential’ to live in a country that is governed democratically, as opposed to nearly 60% for those born in the 1950s.
Conventional wisdom has it that people tend to become more conservative as they age, thus presumably embracing the status quo. Yet it seems that, this time, the problem has deeper roots. According to the same paper, 8% of Europeans aged 16–24 believed that democracy was a ‘bad’ political system for their country in the mid-90s; by 2011, that figure had risen to 13%. These numbers point to an issue with a specific generation, as opposed to an age. So what is going on?
One obvious answer is that democratic institutions are not seen to be tackling the issues young people care about today, which in turn erodes younger generations’ faith in those institutions. For example, a TUI Foundation study conducted last year showed that just over a third of people aged 16–26 think that tackling climate change should be a priority for the EU; the figure rises to 43% for young Germans.
“We need an explicit and conscious drive to make democratic institutions less opaque, with a particular emphasis on engaging tomorrow’s electorate”
Although there have been climate change initiatives that seem positive, such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the COP24 meeting in Poland last year, it can seem that the topic is not enough of a priority for many governments. According to that same TUI survey, young Europeans place the most trust in ‘science and scientists’ (71%), with government coming in at 18% and political parties at just 9%. On the one hand, we need national and global policymakers — as well as individuals — to respond to major contemporary challenges. On the other, it is unclear whether we trust our politicians to deal with the climate threat effectively.
An age of extremes?
Is the problem democratic institutions rather than democracy itself? Within this, it seems the most established institutions are taking a knock.
We often discuss young people’s apathy when it comes to voting, but it is worth noting that over the past few years, those who do vote have strayed from traditional centre-left, centre and centre-right parties. In the 2017 French presidential election, neither of the historical main parties made it to the second round, and in the first round young voters were more likely to vote for the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon or the far-right Marine Le Pen over any other options. These two might not have a lot in common politically, but they did both promise to radically shake up the establishment if elected. In Austria’s presidential election in 2016, 42% of under-30s voted for far-right candidate Norbert Hofer. Elsewhere, parties that were once viewed as the radical fringes are now gaining parliamentary seats, such as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Older generations also vote for populist parties, but are less likely to have little or no faith in democracy in general. What is the difference?
One answer could be alienation. While anyone can feel out of touch with their country’s political class if their interests are different, there are specific factors contributing to the disconnect young people today feel when it comes to politics. This includes technological development. Europeans under the age of 30 probably cannot remember a time before the internet; by the time they became adults and entered the workforce it was an essential part of life. This means young people have a different approach to reading the news, forming opinions, creating social networks and establishing their sense of identity.
Asked by the TUI how they stayed informed about current political events, 82% of young people named the internet; by comparison, only 30% picked daily newspapers. It is not only a question of format; when narrowed down to websites, 44% of respondents said they got their information about politics from Facebook, and only 34% did so via news websites.
Mistrusting the message
We can draw two conclusions from this. The first is that there remains a chasm between young people’s consumption preferences and the relatively old-fashioned way in which politics and political media go about their business. The second is that we are faced with a matryoshka doll of mistrust. Just because young people read news on Facebook does not mean that they unquestioningly swallow it up; only 17% said they trusted the platform. Things are not rosy for traditional media either; only 21% of respondents said they trusted public broadcasters, and just 16% said that they trusted private media.
This again raises the possibility that young people do not have an inherent dislike of democracy itself, but that they lack confidence not only in the traditional democratic institutions that govern us but also in the information they receive and the ability of the media to hold our leaders to account. These two challenges share at least one potential solution.
Mainstream media organisations have been famously slow to get on the online bandwagon and take their internet presence seriously. Plus, there remains the conundrum of consumers’ expectation that online content should be free versus media organisations’ need to earn money and invest in good journalism. The good news is that there are online-only outlets gaining in prominence, which are finally proving that they are capable of not only retaining the attention of young readers, but also delivering high-quality, original reporting.
If serious news outlets were to gain in trust and popularity, it would not be surprising to see the younger generations regain some faith in their countries’ institutions. Most signs point to a generation that is alienated, but not apathetic; it is not a question of convincing them to get interested in politics in general, but rather in making the usual channels of political involvement more attractive.
Active, but less dutiful
In the same TUI survey, young people were asked if they had expressed political opinions in the past year, and if so, how. Almost 45% of young Europeans said they had signed an online petition. The figures for the UK and Spain were 59% and 58% respectively.
These numbers are high, and do not come as a surprise. In the past few years, a number of online campaigns, most of which count younger activists as prominent voices, have been set up. Dozens of countries have seen young people use various social media platforms to give voice to their views on issues including women’s rights, working conditions, quality of life and repressive laws, to name just a few topics.
Something many of these campaigns have in common is that they started organically and spread quickly through these new platforms, bringing together people who would not otherwise have connected, and who are often not attached to an established political party. Young people might not have much faith in democratic institutions or the mainstream press, but they have faith in themselves and are not apathetic about the world they live in.
According to Stephen Coleman, a professor of political communication at Leeds University, young people are becoming more aware that politics encompasses all aspects of daily life. “Capital-P Politics is coming to be seen as less about what happens in elite institutions and more about the norms that we choose to live by. Each of these changes feed into one another, creating a generation that is both more politically active and less politically dutiful than previous generations were.”
Young people do not see politics as something that only happens in the House of Commons, the Bundestag or Matignon, but as a process that can happen at a personal, non-party political level. This is not inherently problematic and greater participation in public discourse can only be a positive thing. However, if we are to close the gap between being able to voice our opinions and feeling that these are being heard, we need to find new and better ways for citizens to participate with democratic institutions. An interesting example was the use of a citizens’ assembly in shaping the Irish referendum on abortion.
So, what now?
Anyone can campaign, but if there are no lawmakers to implement changes nothing will come of protests. Political leaders and organisations — as well as the civil service charged with delivering policy on a day-to-day basis — need to start engaging with younger citizens properly. At its most basic, this means taking what young people have to say and what they care about more seriously at local, national and European level. There is no point in trying to get people interested in something if the overwhelming message they receive is that what they are interested in does not matter.
This may also mean developing online platforms to make politics as easily accessible as most other parts of life, and having a social media presence that is appealing without being patronising. But, as the Irish example suggests, this will need to be combined with the hard work of deliberative engagement and more traditional approaches to civic education and citizenship. If you teach children and young people how their country is run in a way that is appealing and accessible, they will be more likely to appreciate the legitimate trade-offs decision-makers need to make when priorities compete, and be less likely to lose interest. Once more, those citizens who aspire to get involved and make themselves heard are more likely to feel empowered in effecting real change.
We need an explicit and conscious drive to make democratic institutions less opaque and more transparent, with a particular emphasis on engaging tomorrow’s electorate. Although politics and policymaking will always remain complex, giving people the tools to grasp the way the political process functions in their country would be a massive step toward reinvigorating politics.
Marie Le Conte is a political journalist. Her first book, which will take an in-depth look at politics in Westminster, is out later this year.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 4 2018–19