3 Solutions to Fix Our Broken Democracy (more to come)
Generation Y = Generation Powerless?
In nearly all established democracies, there is a worrying growing trend towards lower voter turnouts and declining memberships of political parties, especially among young people: we simply do not vote, and nothing suggests that this situation is likely to change anytime soon.
As those most affected by the financial crisis, we are also more likely to be unemployed, or employed in precarious conditions. Voting, therefore, and getting involved in politics in a broader sense, is understandably not on the top of our to-do lists. The upshot of this is that young people are seriously under-represented in politics: why should politicians address our concerns and create policies that respond to our needs, if we are not the ones who elect them?
This is not to say that all older politicians do not care about young people, or are unable to make policies about issues that concern us. But when we see that so many of our political representatives are old, white and male, it is not so easy to identify with them — especially when we compare them with the diversity of our societies.
Youth and politics: a love/hate relationship
Are young people apathetic, or even too “stupid” to vote? Some commentators allegedly call us “Generation Y-ny [whiny]”. Apparently it’s “all about me, me, me” (or so I was recently told at a conference where I went to speak about how European institutions could better engage with young people…).
But this is so untrue. Look at the broader picture: young people have never been so politically active. We volunteer and fight for causes we believe in; we sign petitions, and protest against injustice. When it truly matters, when the outcome has a clear impact on our lives, we can be counted on to turn out to vote in mass — witness the huge youth turnouts at the Scottish Referendum on Independence, or for marriage equality in Ireland.
Does this mean that we are coming to the end of representative democracy as we know it? Will we, in 15 years, be the generation of 40-somethings who are disengaged and excluded from politics? It doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of innovation, democracy can be revitalised.
Elections and politics are off-putting. Politicians use language that is deliberately confusing and makes them sound smarter than they are (as @Johannanyman rightly points out, this is a domination technique).
This needn’t be so. Political parties should go back to their roots as representative of citizens. How can we trust them when they appear more responsive to corporate interests than to citizens?
Time to Youth Up politics
Let’s imagine all the changes that we can make to ensure that politics becomes more engaging for young people— which is the objective of the on-going European Youth Forum’s “YouthUP” campaign.
The campaign is open to all and seeks to collect ideas from anyone who wishes to contribute. So far, from our research on the issue and the workshops we organise with young people, the solutions identified fall into three groups:
Solution 1: Citizenship education for all — let’s learn how to do politics in our own way
Citizenship education, to some, means brainwashing the young. To certain governments it also seems to be a tool to foster a feeling of national civic duty and commitment to national values, creating proud and “good” citizens.
This does not need to be the case. Citizenship education should be about finding opportunities to practice democracy. If we are ill-informed about politics, this is in no small way because few of us have had the chance to experience democracy first-hand and to develop the knowledge, know-how, critical mind-set and confidence to participate in a meaningful way.
Schools are a great place to start, a great place to reach out to young people. But schools are far from ideal places to learn democracy. The school is not a democratic institution. And democracy is not taught, it must be learned. That is why we promote partnerships between schools and youth organisations. The latter provide a safe environment and non-formal setting that are required to develop the competences and values of democracy — the learning by doing approach.
If public authorities are seriously committed to engaging young people in democratic life, then they must provide incentives for schools and heads of schools to engage with civil society organisations and to experiment with citizenship education activities.
Solution 2: Participatory & collaborative decision making— a bit of innovation is needed in democracy too!
Why should democracy be restricted to elected representatives? As I said above, we are engaged when it matters most and when we see a direct impact on our lives. There should be more opportunities for young people to have a direct say in the policy-making that affects us at all levels, from local to European. There are examples that work, through involvement in youth organisations, participatory budgeting schemes, citizens’ assemblies; they are not without their faults, but they do provide an opportunity for people to take ownership of the decision making process. This is what democracy is really about! Power to the people!
Solution 3: Re-think elections and campaigning
Elections as the only form of citizens’ input are not enough for young people today. We are more and more demanding and want quick responses (possibly the result of our use of social media for political discussions). But in most cases, elections will continue to be the most important feature of our democratic life for the foreseeable future. It is vital therefore that we address the barriers that young people face in participating in these traditional forms of democracy: problems with voter registration, the lack of relevant and targeted information campaigns, voter advice applications, online voting, and of course, the legal voting age (which we advocate lowering to 16).
We need to ensure that more young people are in key decision making positions, both in parliaments and in political party structures. We need measures such as quotas for young candidates and reserved seats for representatives of youth wings on political parties’ boards.
Mhairi Black, 21, caught the media’s attention last year, when she became the youngest MP ever to be elected to the House of Commons in the UK and gave a rousing maiden speech . Why are there not more Mhairis around?
To sum up, what we need is political commitment to the development of a generation of critically-minded young politicians and engaged activists. However, this comes at a time of Europe-wide government cuts to the funding of youth organisations and civil society. NGOs are being targeted, and funding is more and more pushing them to become service providers rather than watchdogs of governments who can provide a system of accountability and checks and balance — let alone contribute to policy making in an independent and sustainable way.
This is not only counter-productive — it is scary. If nothing is done to reverse these trends, we will very soon find ourselves with political systems that are completely undemocratic, a situation where politicians ignore citizens who are less and less engaged, and citizens do not chose their political representatives. And who knows where that will lead us?