Young people are rapidly losing faith in democracy and government, drawing them towards populist politics, a new report shows.
Rabat – A study by Cambridge University has unearthed a growing dissatisfaction with democracy among youth who are increasingly drawn to populists. The Bennett Institute’s Centre for the Future of Democracy on Tuesday released findings that show increasing frustration with government and the democratic system itself due to several economic factors.
The centre’s Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 showed that millennials express more dissatisfaction with democracy than any generation that has come before. The report compiled data on political satisfaction since 1995 and found unprecedented disquiet. Over half of millennials are losing faith in the hallowed institution of democracy.
The new data aligns with earlier findings in the centre’s Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 Report, released in January. The January report surprisingly showed that 57.5% of participants reported dissatisfaction with democracy. It described democracy worldwide to be in “a state of malaise.”
“This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties,” the newer study’s lead author Dr Roberto Foa stated. The drivers are largely economic exclusion, youth unemployment, and wealth inequality, pushing young voters towards populist parties.
The January study had already recorded that 2019 marked “the highest level of democratic discontent on record” which the study’s authors considered to be the beginning of a “global democratic recession.” The reasons for this dissatisfaction appear to have little to do with the concept of democracy itself, but an exasperation with economics.
The concept of a representative democracy is simple. Citizens vote individuals into office to represent them, and they correspond by presenting policy that their constituents desire. The concept is as simple as it is utterly untethered with the reality of democratic politics.
Today citizens often see their “representatives” respond more to the will of business interests or wealthy donors than their own concerns. Political games, re-elections, and close connections often appear to sway politicians more than the needs of the people who elected them. Amid this climate of unresponsive government, youth dissatisfaction with democracy itself grows.
Furthermore the perverse need for “access” to the halls of power has allowed for similar corruption in the media. Journalists often know exactly what not to say or ask when speaking with a politician. They simply do so because any real critical note could mean never interviewing a powerful person again.
The global reaction to an interview conducted after the New Zealand election evidences the exasperation with both politics and media. Journalist Tova O’Brien Of NewsHub received global praise for finally and openly confronting a politician in an honest and direct manner. The interview has gathered millions of views and has become an example of how to confront the powerful.
Jami-Lee Ross is out of Parliament after Saturday's election results https://t.co/lRo0eSIiSS The Advance NZ co-leader joined @TovaOBrien on @NewshubNationNZ and was asked if he has any regrets – see the full interview unfold. #Decision20 pic.twitter.com/jIkSnFeWyz— Newshub (@NewshubNZ) October 17, 2020
The issue of climate change has become a prime example of the disconnect between people and power, driving youth dissatisfaction with democracy and government. Most citizens appear convinced of the urgent need for radical action, yet politicians follow the same slow and business-oriented approach seen on other less apocalyptic issues.
Even in the face of humanity’s destruction, young people see multinationals and rich donors guiding our political direction.
In recent years populist parties across the West have skillfully used the public’s dissatisfaction to scapegoat vulnerable minorities, and politics itself, in order to gain power. Yet most of these parties offer nothing but the same economic prescriptions as the conventional parties do.
Countering the narrative of an unresponsive politics should be simple; do what voters want and they will be satisfied with their representative. But there is an unmentionable factor that has steered politics that even the study’s authors did not dare point out.
The unmentionable ‘C’ word
The grievances about democracy that young people report nearly all revolve around the consequences of their economic system. Rising income inequality, economic exclusion, and shrinking youth employment opportunities are some of the key concerns driving the dissatisfaction with democracy and government expressed in the data.
The democracies that showed the largest dissatisfaction in the January report have something striking in common. The US, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia all show the greatest exasperation with the democratic system. These are countries that have for decades let unfettered capitalism dominate their decision making.
The countries where citizens show the greatest degree of dissatisfaction have prioritized capitalist performance over the last decades. Cutting taxes, loosening regulations, and privatizing government functions have all featured prominently in politics in the countries where dissatisfaction grows the fastest.
When GDP growth and economic performance become the primary focus, the needs and desires of the people have less influence on decision making. Both sides of the political divide have for decades urged unfettered capitalism by using a neoliberal economic approach.
This approach is similar to Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down economics.” In its essence the theory says let the rich get richer and the poor will see the benefits from prosperity and new jobs. Some governments have now tried it for several decades and the conclusion has long come in. This economic system does little more than transfer wealth from the poor to the rich, with growing inequality as its most obvious feature.
When young voters elect right-wing populists they show a rise in satisfaction during the first term. Voters often use a protest-vote to counter perceived corruption or political misdealings by the previous government. “Overturning the establishment” is their promise. However, it rarely materializes and results in lost faith after the populists’ first term.
A different course
While capitalism appears to have brought despair to those who have worshipped it most, a more moderate approach appears to yield very different results. In countries that invest heavily in social benefits and support, dissatisfaction with democracy among the youth and in general shrinks.
Support for democracy remains strong, or has even grown, in Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, South Korea, and Switzerland, according to the January report. These are all countries that provide strong social benefits and labor protections.
The report suggests a trend of “antisystemic left challengers [who] are capable of rejuvenating democratic politics.” Populist politics that demand investment in social benefits and taxing the rich actively reverse youth dissatisfaction with democracy. This trend was evident in Latin America’s post-2000 left-wing populist wave, as well as in the 1981 French elections.
Providing citizens with good education, affordable quality healthcare, strong labor laws, and economic opportunities makes them feel heard. Yet even in these countries there is the pull towards prioritizing economics over people, in order to compete in terms of growth with countries that already do so. This creates a space for right-wing populism to grow.
The data shows that a balanced approach between free trade, strong social protections, and an educated people gives citizens the confidence to engage and participate in democracy. It allows for a response against climate change and the consequences of crises such as pandemics. But the temptation to opt for unfettered capitalism looms large as it helps politicians stay in power and removes their obligation towards voters.
Moderating against the worst elements of capitalism requires bravery and vision. Investing in infrastructure, healthcare, and social benefits might not earn much praise from international investors. Yet what these measures do is ensure a satisfied population, shrinking inequality, and long-term stability. In order to reverse youth dissatisfaction with democracy, investment is needed.
Morocco has many of the features that the report sees as essential ”preexisting resentments in society” that feed the rise of populists. The authors identify these as “wealth inequalities between the generations, spatial inequality between successful and ‘left-behind’ regions, social exclusion among ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples, or anger at the corruption of prevailing political elites.”
In this context, Morocco’s recent moves towards a new social contract represent great potential for its future. Improving the national healthcare system, allowing access to family allowances, and expanding pension schemes are smart and just moves in the right direction. Against the grain of international economics Morocco has chosen to prioritize Moroccans over foreign investors.
Morocco’s mineral wealth, young population, and status as a trading nation allow it to go against the trend, confident in its own future. In an amicable and functioning political system, it allows Morocco to be able to safely expand rights such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, as well as develop remote regions as a national project instead of through disruptive populism.
A path to universal social protection
King Mohammed VI announced the “project to achieve universal social protection” in his speech on October 9 to mark the opening of the parliamentary year. He emphasized that “economic progress goes hand in hand with social development and with improved living conditions for the citizens.”
The British Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 Report in January described Morocco only as a country where “entrenched monarchies were able to co-opt and defuse dissent.” While this ignores the country’s hybrid nature, a blend of monarchy and democracy, it also ignores the political responsiveness that has become evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moroccans overwhelmingly agreed with measures the government implemented during the crisis. Approximately 86% agreed with closing schools, 92% agreed with border closures,, and 71% even agreed with the unprecedented decision to suspend communal Friday prayers. Amid a global health crisis 77% of citizens identified as satisfied or very satisfied with government measures. It appears Morocco is now building on this by providing new social protections that can only help reduce future youth dissatisfaction with democracy and government.
The country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and its growing social ambitions prove that in many ways Morocco is equally or more responsive to its citizens, despite having less resources than many rich Western countries. While the work is definitely not complete, these efforts can only help citizens feel ownership and trust in their representatives.
Morocco is now walking a promising path toward universal social protections, fueled by its growing green energy sector and guided by its wide trading network and strong diplomacy. As King Mohammed VI said, “we shall all rise to this challenge, in keeping with the spirit of national unity and social solidarity.” As faith in government and democracy wanes in the West, here it is only set to grow.