[BLOG] Democracy Strikes Back!
by Kristen Aigro
Shh…please be quiet, democracy is sleeping
When was the last time you voted in an election? Last year? Last month? Never?
If the answer is the latter, then you’re definitely not alone. Chances are, if you are young, you are unlikely to vote. It’s a fact that is presented to us time and time again in football league-style election turnout stats. “Look, youth are coming last in the ranking (again).”
The shaky relationship between young people and the ballot box is not exactly a recent development either. It’s a phenomenon that has been pondered over and analysed many times. Type “young people” and “voting” into Google and you’ll be met with thousands of articles attempting to break down all the possible reasons why the young demographic consistently fail to cast their ballot in elections. Are we really a lost generation of voters?
There are approximately 3.5 billion of us young people, making up over half of the world’s population. We are, or should be, a critical majority when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. However, the potential influence of our generation on the outcome of elections too often does not translate into actual votes - whether it be at local, national or even European level. In the minds of our political leaders this makes us less of a priority in their campaigns, manifestos and policy decisions. Despite all of this, I am here to argue that young people should still be considered a force to be reckoned with. Here’s why.
Don't ask what youth can do for democracy, but rather what can democracy can do for youth.
Young people face significant challenges and barriers linked to their age. They are most exposed, for example, to precarious working conditions, poverty, and lack of adequate housing, to name a few. This is in addition to other forms of discrimination they might face based on their different identifies, such as their racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender and other backgrounds.
You could be forgiven then, as a young person, for having ‘active citizenship’ and ‘political engagement’ down in your list of priorities. Even less motivating is when you feel like your elected representatives are not hearing you, acting to address your needs, hopes for the future, or challenges in accessing rights.
One might think that the simple solution would be for young people to wake up and smell the coffee: they need to get more active and engage in those institutional politics and decision making processes if they want to increase their political influence and be heard.
It is just not that simple.
If we want to start rebuilding a democratic system that is befitting of today's realities, and ready to face future challenges in a more sustainable way, the democratic system needs first to address these issues of power imbalance, and give a meaningful way of participating to those who are and feel excluded from democratic life, including young people.
The end of democracy as we know it?
We need to change the status quo. Rather than putting all decision-making power in the hands of elected officials – likely to prioritise policies that create short term political gains – a revitalised democratic system should also allow for the needs of future generations to be considered. They might not be born yet, but will certainly be affected the most by bad policies and decisions made today.
Democracy, one might say, seems to have rested on its laurels for too long, and forgotten that its reason to be and own legitimacy depends on it listening to citizens’ voices – and of all people, all groups, and not the privileged few who are the most vocal.
A New Hope!
Contrary to popular misconceptions of the "apathetic youth", young people use their creativity and innovation in how they choose to engage in the political process. Young people's increased participation in alternative forms of political action, including signing a petition, protests, boycotting or supporting certain products and brands, social media campaigning, shows that this generation of young people is interested in politics - perhaps more than ever.
In other words, choosing to stay away from the more established, recognised, forms of democracy, like voting, must not be taken as the reality..
From examples of participatory budgeting to citizens assemblies, to sortition (random selection of officials from citizens groups), there are countless numbers of success stories that have managed, through innovation, to revitalise democracy and get young people back on board. These need to become the mainstream however, and not just a few exceptional cases by a handful of progressive politicians. And this change needs to happen now, and at all levels of governance.
The Return of the Youth
UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake: “The youth can be a force for democracy”
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises young people as “critical agents of change”. But for them to take this active and leading role they need the right support, willing political institutions, and the right tools.
Only when these conditions are met can we expect young people to take a leading role in building new, future-proof and sustainable democratic systems, and become the heroes of democracy we all need them to be.
This article is part of a series on the some of the things that need to change for a sustainable future and the role of young people in the process. Follow #ChangetheGame!
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About Kristen Aigro, Board Member of the European Youth Forum
Kristen studies Contemporary History and Philosophy at the University of Tartu, where she has been member of the Student Council and The Society of International Relations. Since 2014 Kristen has been volunteering as an International Officer to the Estonian National Youth Council.