Are the youth of today disenchanted with democracy?

Stuff reported last week that young New Zealanders were “losing faith in democracy”, based on a journal article showing that only 29.3 percent of Kiwis born in the 1980s say it is “essential” to live in a democracy.

The story adds:

This is a dramatic drop off from those in older cohorts – almost half of those born in the 1970s believe it is essential, while almost two thirds of those born in the 1930s say as much.

Now, I’m not sure we should take this at face value. It’s not as if large numbers of young New Zealanders show a desire to live in a dictatorship, or with a “strongman” leader in charge (unless I’ve been missing some quite major shifts).I suspect the fact they don’t think it is “essential” reflects not a strong desire for totalitarianism but instead a gradual degradation and diminution of a sense that traditional politics is how you achieve change.

We already know that young people are disengaging with traditional forms of democracy, especially voting. I suspect this is partly because politics seems simultaneously uninspiring – the narrowing of debate and quasi-consensus around middle of the road policies in the last 30 years must increase the sense that voting changes little – and also out of date, in the sense that standard, once-every-three-years political voting hardly offers the responsiveness and transparency that the internet generation gets elsewhere in its life.

For those on lower incomes, inequality must be part of the story too, in the sense that those who feel economically excluded from society are more likely to feel powerless and less likely to be engaged.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that young people are apathetic. They want to see change, and they are pursuing it outside of conventional parliamentary politics, in NGOs and social enterprises. But Parliamentary politics does matter – it is where power ultimately resides, and decisions are made – and in that sense, this survey is another reason to think harder about how to reform politics, and reconnect people with it.

If we fail in that task, I don’t think that authoritarianism will be the result; it’s just that we’ll continue to see power shift towards those who do vote (the well off and elderly), and we’ll become an increasingly unrepresentative democracy. Which would also be pretty bad.

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