Millennials losing their faith in politics

Disenchanted: the young are less satisfied with democracy than any previous generation.

Can democracy survive? As national leaders worldwide move to curb local mayors and leaders, a new survey shows that millennials are losing faith in democratic systems altogether.

It could be a discarded Game of Thrones script: a handful of plucky northern rebels holding out against the government. But the King in the North in this telling is not Robb Stark but Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham; and his blonde opponent is not Joffrey Baratheon but Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

For the last ten days, the UK government has been trying to impose a Tier 3 lockdown on Manchester and other northern cities. Burnham had been calling for more funding to survive the lockdown. But yesterday Downing Street overruled him, imposing the lockdown against his will – and offering only a third of the requested budget.

Central government and local administration in England have historically often clashed. Once, parishes were responsible for many state functions, including welfare, but in 1834 the central state took over these. The dispute between Burnham and Johnson can be seen as a continuation of this history.

Yet Britain is not the only country witnessing central crackdowns on local democracy. In 2012, the Kurds of northern Syria created a decentralised, grassroots, independent democracy called Rojava. Last year Turkey invaded and crushed Rojava.

Many experts are not surprised that a new survey has discovered millennials all over the world are losing faith in democratic systems. The survey found that just 48% of those born between 1981 and 1996 say they are satisfied with democracy.

The most significant reason for disillusionment is inequality of wealth. Millennials are the first generation in modern history to be poorer than their parents.

Democracy is historically closely linked with meritocracy. Yet wealth inequality, poor employment prospects and the difficulty of getting on the housing ladder have persuaded many millennials in the UK that success has less to do with hard work and more with your background and connections.

The last few years have also seen a number of high-profile democratic failures. In 2015, the European Union forced Greece to accept a humiliating bailout deal, even though Greeks had voted overwhelmingly against it in a referendum.

Scotland and Northern Ireland had to leave the EU against their will thanks to votes in England and Wales. Donald Trump became president of the US despite losing the popular vote by 2.3 million votes. Many young people have come to feel that their votes mean nothing.

Some argue that democracy is irrelevant because the power of the nation state has waned. When corporations are multinational, democratic states cannot tax and regulate them. States are unable to provide young people with the same standard of living that they could afford for older generations.

But others think that it is too soon to give up on democracy. They argue that no other system has ever delivered such stability, freedom and prosperity. Young people simply have to be persuaded of its advantages.

So, can democracy survive?

Demo-critic

Yes, say some. In Tunisia, for example, the freedoms that the people created in 2011 still stand, while in Hong Kong, crowds defy the Chinese police state to defend their rights. Democracy can survive if people fight for for it.

Not at all, say others. Democracy has historically proven very fragile, especially in times of economic stress and natural disaster. Systems of government legitimise themselves by providing a decent standard of living; if democracy is unable to do so because of the rise of global corporations, then it will collapse.

You Decide

  1. Do ordinary voters always choose the best leaders?
  2. Are YOU satisfied with democracy? If so, why? If not, what would increase your faith in democratic systems?

Activities

  1. Organise a referendum in your classroom on the question“Should our school be a democracy?” Each person should write “Yes” or “No” on a slip of paper, then assign some people to count the votes and declare which side has won.
  2. Write a short letter to a local newspaper explaining how you would reform your local political system to make it more democratic.

Some People Say...

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), 32nd president of the USA

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that democracy is difficult to define. There is some evidence that democracies existed in India in the 6th century BC. The first recognised democracy was ancient Athens, but there, only adult male citizens could vote – probably no more than 20% of the population. The purest kind of democracy is a direct democracy of the kind advocated by Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which an assembly of the entire population must be called to make any given decision.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not democracy can survive globalisation. Political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri believe that the world has been transformed into a kind of global empire, in which every region is a colony serving the interests of a multinational, decentralised elite. People can move more easily, so many countries now contain a growing number of immigrants without a vote. It is not clear how systems based on the principle of “one person, one vote” can adapt to this situation.

Word Watch

Andy Burnham
A Labour Party politician and mayor of Greater Manchester since the office was created in 2017.
Tier 3
The strictest Covid restrictions that can be imposed in England. Under a Tier 3 lockdown, all pubs and bars must close, wedding receptions are banned and people may not meet others from outside their household, even outdoors.
Manchester
England’s second city, with a population of 2.8 million in its metropolitan area. It was an important industrial centre during the Industrial Revolution.
Parishes
An old unit of local government in England, Scotland and Wales. It was religious in origin: each parish was centred on a church. However, each parish also had its own council, with a number of civil functions.
Kurds
A Middle Eastern people with significant populations in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and a large diaspora in Germany. Kurds believe that they constitute a nation and have fought wars for their own independent state.
Meritocracy
The idea that a person should attain success through hard work and talent alone, not through their connections or family background.
Bailout
Emergency funding given to a business or state to keep them from going bankrupt. The bailout offered to the Greek government came with conditions that many Greeks thought unacceptable, including privatising key industries, cutting pensions and raising taxes.
Referendum
A popular vote held on a single question. Referendums are an example of direct democracy, and they are generally assumed to override parliamentary legislation.
Tunisia
A country in North Africa. In 2011, it overthrew its dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, triggering the Arab Spring that rocked several Middle Eastern nations. The country has since successfully transitioned to a full democracy.
Multinational
Describes a company or group of companies having operations in several different countries, usually taking advantage of their varying tax and regulation regimes.

Subjects

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