Faith in democracy

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Listening to poIitical experts talk about how our elections next year will likely go, I get the impression that much depends on how our youth will vote. They constitute the biggest voting bloc and they have the most at stake with the outcome.

But how do our young people feel about things going on in our country? The only study I recall is probably over 10 years old and it presents a pessimistic picture. Our young can’t wait to get out of the country to have better prospects for a good life.

Politics is usually not that important to them. If at all, they may be, like contemporaries elsewhere, growing disillusioned with democracy and finding populism more and more attractive. The reason isn’t so much political, but economic.

I came across a year old study coming out of Cambridge University that extensively looked into what young people all over the world think about democracy. The study concluded that millennials are the most disillusioned generation “in living memory.”

“Young people’s faith in democratic politics is lower than any other age group, and millennials across the world are more disillusioned with democracy than Generation X or baby boomers were at the same stage of life.”

Just to define terms: 1. Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996. 2. Generation X came of age in the 1990s, born between 1965 and 1980. 3. Baby boomers are the “1960s and 1970s generation,” born 1944–1964.

A majority of millennials today express “dissatisfaction” with the way democracy works in their countries. A generation ago, those at a comparable age – in their 20s and 30s – remained largely satisfied with democratic performance.

Similarly, most members of Generation X – those born between 1965 and 1980 who are now aged between 40 and 55 – are now also dissatisfied with democracy’s performance.

The Center for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge found out that satisfaction with democracy is in steepest decline among 18 to 34 year olds in almost every global region. The researchers also found out that young people are most positive about democracy under populist leaders of both left and right.

This new generation of voters in democracies across Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific “are less concerned with the value of democracy as an ideal, and more concerned with its functioning in practice – including the ability to address problems of youth unemployment, corruption, inequality, and crime.

“Increasingly, the legitimacy of democracy therefore hinges on its performance – or failure – to face these mounting social challenges. Where this balance falls short, satisfaction with democracy declines, leaving voters more easily mobilized by anti-system parties promising to sweep aside existing institutions and deliver ‘real change.’

“This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their 20s and 30s,” said Dr. Roberto Foa, lead author of the report from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies.

“By their mid-30s, 55 percent of global millennials say they are dissatisfied with democracy, whereas under half of Generation X felt the same way at that age. The majority of baby boomers – now in their 60s and 70s – continue to report satisfaction with democracy...”

The Cambridge study revealed that “globally, as the first millennials began university at the turn of the century, satisfaction with democracy was higher than in their parents’ generation. It fell sharply following the financial crisis of 2008, with millennials losing faith harder and faster than older generations…

“In fact, the idea that young malcontents soften in attitude as they age is now reversed the world over. Millennials and Gen Xers have grown steadily less satisfied with democracy as they have advanced in life.

“Researchers argue that, in developed democracies, the biggest contributor to this trend is ‘economic exclusion’ caused by high youth unemployment and wealth inequality: the strongest predictors of the satisfaction age gap.

“This democratic disconnect is not a given, but the result of democracies failing to deliver outcomes that matter for young people in recent decades, from jobs and life chances to addressing inequality and climate change.”

Strangely, “countries electing populist leaders see sharp turnarounds in disenchantment, to the point where young people appear more satisfied with democracy under populists than under moderates,” said Daniella Wenger, one of the team of millennials who co-authored the report.

“Whether the rise of leftwing Syriza and Podemos in Greece and Spain, or the populist right of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice party, all boosted pro-democracy attitudes among millennials... Populism feeds on division…”

The lesson to be learned by reformist and moderate politicians confronting populists in a democracy was defined by one of the study authors:

“The populist challenge must shock moderate parties and leaders into action beyond cosmetic rebrands. If it does so, populism may still prompt democracy’s rebirth, rather than the onset of its gradual decay.”

There must be applicable lessons for our situation. I would venture to observe that our young people’s disillusionment with democracy has more to do with its failure to improve economic outcomes.

Duterte seems to have caught the mood, and like Trump built a base of support from discontents with democracy as practiced. The base is initially happy to have bloodied the nose of the establishment, even if their lives have not changed for the better.

Then again, Duterte was given the chance, but has failed to deliver on economic outcomes big time, so he may be vulnerable despite his populism. Duterte’s dramatic flair can only go so far.

I take it from this study that it isn’t about democracy as much as it is about governance or the ability of the government to deliver on expectations. A populist like Duterte can easily build on discontent, but that turns around too if he fails to deliver. Maybe VP Leni should become a populist reformer, be more like Miriam Defensor who is ready to fight.

It is early days for our elections. Let the lessons be learned. The votes of our young people may be crucial to the outcome.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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