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Democracy Is Not Alright: Why We Are Right To Be Disillusioned

Staff Writer Timothy Gribble argues that the political system is out of touch with those it claims to represent.

It has become increasingly clear over the past 5 years or so that younger cohorts across the globe are starting to show widespread disillusionment with democratic governance. A 2020 study found that in almost every global region, satisfaction with democracy among 18–34-year-olds is at a record low. As Dr Roberto Foa, lead author of the report from Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies points out, “[t]his 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”.

On 10 April 2022, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Observer released a study revealing that 55% of 18-25 year olds in the UK believe democracy is working badly, in contrast to 19% who believe it is working well. This is one of a plethora of signs that our generation lacks faith in democracy.

At home and worldwide, our generation is becoming unconvinced by democratic governance. As a member of the younger cohorts, I too share these sentiments, and I have every right to.

Why are we disillusioned?

‘The Kids are not alright’, a study published on the 1 September last year by the think tank ONWARD sought to find social factors driving our ‘‘detachment’’ from democracy. The analysis lists ‘narrow social networks’, ‘overprotective parenting’ and ‘online culture’ as factors leading us away from our belief in the system. These points were validated by words of encouragement from current and former members of government. ‘What’s even more worrying is the root cause of that detachment – the lack of connections that young people feel to each other and wider society’, writes Lord O’Shaughnessy, Chair of Onward’s Social Fabric Steering Grouphouse.

Perhaps there is something wrong with us but, as I read the report, I noticed one factor missing: the ever clear flaws in our current democratic system. Our generation has some ingrained issues, sure. But just like all cohorts, we react to the reality that is in front of us. It is essential that we recognise that there is not just something wrong with us, but that there is something wrong with it. We lost faith in our democratic systems because we had reason to.

In the past decade or so we have been engulfed by a landscape of scandal, incompetence, and corruption. In the UK, there has been a revolving door of politicians who neither represent our interests or manage to convince us that they operate for any interests other than their own.

Minorities and immigrants encounter neglect and disdain from our government. Unlawful plans to ship migrants to foreign countries and immigration bills condemned by democratic regulators like the United Nations undermine the preservation of individual rights, a fundamental objective of democratic governance.

While politicians scheme to win the next elections they do not concern themselves primarily with the bigger picture. They ignore the interests of the youth and the marginalised. As the young take to the streets to expose their qualms with goverment policy, they are not met with sympathy, but with oppressive bills restricting their right to do so.

Other problems remain potent and worsen. Inflated monetary and corporate influence on policy is expanding throughout the globe. Western democracies are by no means an exception. In the UK, it has been clear that lobbying has been out of control for some time. Transparency UK ‘lifted the lid’ on the loopholes within our lobbying system with a study in 2015. The attempts to fix it have been superficial and performative and still leave “far too much wiggle room” according to campaigners. Just last month, our unelected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak found himself embroiled in a scandal involving oil giant BP. All this begs the question: Why would we believe that policy is being made in our best interests?

This is exacerbated by the reality that we are the first generation to earn less than our parents since the Second World War. In almost every way possible, the system is not working in the interests of the young.

Authoritarian sympathies

The area of concern lies not within our disillusionment, but with our potential response to it. There has been evidence of a rise in sympathies with authoritarianism across western democracies over the past years. A 2023 study conducted by King’s College London and the World Values Survey found that support for authoritarianism, in general, has risen significantly since 1995 in democracies such as the US and Australia. While, promisingly, the support for democracy in principle has not fallen in the UK, army rule appears to be a more popular idea among 18–34-year-olds than any other age range.

I have, myself, had conversations with many people flirting with the possibility of more authoritarian governance, both in the context of climate change and in general. Faith is being lost in democratic governance to deal with these issues. While I do sympathise, I remind myself of two things.

  1. 1. Being able to openly challenge our system to that extent is a testament to the pricelessness of our freedom.

We must keep the events of the 20th century in our minds. We live in an environment where it is possible to speak out, take action and criticise without persecution (to an extent). What happens if we lose that?

2. Democracies are supposed to be challenged but not for being democracies.

After all, it is the undemocratic elements and the resistance to improvements to democracy that lie at the heart of our problems. Democracy has plateaued, reached a stalemate. Anti-democratic compenents still pervade.

We still undermine the rights of minorities and migrants, people on which our societies depend upon. Elections often appear pointless, a choice between two very similar options. To the eyes of the young, politicians rarely seem to intend policy to address the root cause of societal problems. Decisions made seemingly in the name of political manoeuvring and influenced not by the people, but by corporations and lobbyists. These are results of anti-democratic phenomena and democratic backsliding. Combatting this means amplifying democratic features and finding new ways of implementing the needs of the people into policy. Direct democracy, not in the form of one-off votes, but regular systematic engagement and the encouragement of discussion.

Polarised

Unfortunately, it is the case we have now grown into a reality of polarisation, inheriting a culture of conflict that the media has harvested in the past decade. Extreme positions are taken on either side as nuance falls tiredly into the shadows. Conversation is either charged or discussions are approached timidly and with caution. We cannot seem to foster any unity.

Meanwhile we encounter a reality where the one thing that appears to be almost universal is our scepticism towards the value of our democratic institutions. Nevertheless, we must count our blessings. We must keep remembering the turmoil, suffering and immense tragedy that marked the 20th century. We must remember the voices silenced and the lives lost in the clutches of authoritarianism. It seems it has been left up to us to find a way forward in these times of chaos. Empathy, imagination, and resilience in the name of improved democracy is what we need if we wish to hold on to our freedoms.

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