YOUNG PEOPLE IN POLITICS
YOUNG PEOPLE IN POLITICS:
by Dr. Marta Lagos and Professor Richard Rose
Your comments and reactions to the projects are most welcomed.
The role of youth in the fight for and defense of democracy
In the new democracies of the world, the role of youth is of special importance, and in the world today there are more new than established democracies. Older generations of a society include leaders of the discredited undemocratic regime and many who supported, or at least tolerated it as likely to last their lifetime or because they saw no way of opposing it. By contrast, young politicians are freer of association with excesses of the past, and have often been prominent in demonstrations calling for an end to an undemocratic regime. The way in which a new democratic government develops is of special concern to young people, for it promises to rule their lives for forty years or more -- whether it becomes a completely consolidated democracy or remains an imperfect, incomplete democracy. If a new democracy demonstrates continuing weaknesses, idealistic young people may become indifferent or cynical in reaction. Insofar as idealism declines, then this reduces popular pressure for better governance.
In established democracies, continuity in fundamental political values through the turnover of generations is necessary to maintain a democratic political system. Insofar as young people endorse the "rules of the game" of an established democracy, their political views will be only marginally different from those of their elders. In such circumstances, the turnover of generations changes who rules, but it does not alter how government works. If young people in such a society rebel against the values of their parents, this would lead to support for anarchic or undemocratic forms of government, destabilizing a democratic system.
In new democracies younger generations are faced with the challenge of creating stability in the place of the chronic instability of the past. In Latin America, where many countries have alternated between democracy and dictatorship or between different forms of semi-democratic rule, democratic stability is the most precious goal. In post-Communist societies, the collapse of old regimes (and of states such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) and gains in freedom have been accompanied by the creation of new political and economic uncertainties. The role of youth therefore has very different significance in old and new democracies. In the former, young people face the challenge of fitting into an established political system or making changes. In new democracies, a discredited regime is no more, but young people have the challenge of promoting their country's new freedom.
A positive commitment to democratic values is of fundamental political importance, for in a democracy what ordinary people think is important. Insofar as young people are idealistic, they may be especially in favour of democracy. But insofar as the character and performance of a political regime falls short of the standards of an ideal democracy -- and many do -- then frustrated idealism can lead to constructive criticism, vigorous attack or political cynicism and apathy. Insofar as experience creates tolerance of less than ideal systems of government, then middle-age people may be more positive about their democratic regime than young people. In societies where old people have experienced authoritarian or totalitarian rule, a democratic regime full of inadequacies may be preferred as the lesser evil, on the Churchillian grounds that an imperfect democracy is better than everything else their country has tried. However, in new democracies such resignation may turn younger people off politics.
Young adults can be seen as having distinctive political interests, more inclined to change than older generations, more idealistic in their goals and less loyal to established traditions. In economic terms, young people are specially vulnerable to increased unemployment, because this hurts most those who are just entering the labour market. They are much more affected by a government's education policy toward cash grants for students and tuition charges than by pension measures that affect their parents or grandparents. Especially in new democracies, education policy affects the opportunity of getting a good job and social mobility. Insofar as the life styles of young people differ substantially from older generations, youths are more sensitive to laws that regulate behaviour that their elders reject, for example, concerning sex, abortion and the use of soft drugs.
Data used in the report
How involved are young people in politics and how different is their outlook from that of middle-aged and older adults? This report answers the question by the systematic analysis of public opinion surveys from 41 countries covering the established democracies of Western Europe, post-Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, democratic and semi-democratic countries of Latin America, plus Korea and South Africa.
To understand youth in politics we must compare their behaviour and values with those of middle-age and older citizens in order to see how much (or how little) difference there is between generations. While grandparents, parents and youths in the same family share blood ties, they often differ radically in their political experiences. This is especially true in new democracies. In established democracies of Europe, the great majority of citizens, whatever their age, have only known life in a democracy. In post-Communist countries where democracy was introduced after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, only the youngest generation has come of age politically in a system with free and fair elections. In many Latin American countries most adults have lived under democratic and undemocratic regimes, and only the youngest generation has come of political age with the new wave of democracy. For them, the old undemocratic regime can be part of the past that is dead rather than an active point of reference of what is to be avoided.
Altogether, the data base includes almost 50,000 interviews, with sufficient respondents in every country to ensure that all the findings reported here--including those showing little or no difference between age groups--are statistically significant. The report compares three age groups: the young between the ages of 18-29; middle-age citizens between 30 and 59; and the oldest generation, age 60 or above. Given many thousands of respondents, almost any difference will be statistically significant. In order to be politically significant differences should be at least 10 percent, for smaller differences between generations almost invariably mean that a majority in all generations behave the same.
Findings of the report
The survey evidence about the influence of social structure on political involvement shows that while youth are sometimes and to some degree different from their elders, age is neither the sole nor the primary influence on political involvement. Prosperity and education are usually more important. Figure 1 summarizes the results by averaging across three continents the difference between young and old; the most and least educated; and the most and least prosperous.
Prosperity tends to have the most consistent and positive relation with democratic involvement. Across all three continents, more prosperous people are more likely to vote, to be interested in politics, have a positive attitude toward democracy and reject undemocratic alternatives. Education is also important. More educated people are more likely to be interested in politics, satisfied with democracy, and opposed to undemocratic alternatives.
Age has no overall relation with the most significant measures of democratic involvement: satisfaction with democracy, the rejection of undemocratic alternatives, and interest in politics. Older people are more likely to vote than younger people. Young people are often in motion, moving between education and work, creating technical obstacles to voting, such as being registered to vote from one address while living a long way away. In these circumstances, young people may not begin to exercise their civic rights until they begin to settle down, several years after they are formally eligible to vote. Age affects pride in country; older people are consistently more likely to be proud of their country. This suggests that in an era of easy travel and trans-national media, young people are more cosmopolitan than their elders.
Regardless of age, the more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to be satisfied with democracy. Within each age bracket, increased education strengthens satisfaction with democracy. In Western Europe the difference is as much as 24 percentage points among the young and middle-aged, and almost as big among the older population. In post-Communist Europe, education strengthens disapproval of undemocratic regimes by an average of 12 percentage points within each age group, and in Latin America by an average of 8 points. Independently of age, education also increases interest in politics. The difference is particularly marked in established European democracies, where among the most educated older people, interest in politics is 38 percent higher than for the least educated elderly. Education tends to lower pride in country among youths in Western Europe and in post-Communist Europe by 12 and ten percentage points respectively, while in Latin America the most educated young people are 9 percent more likely to show pride than are illiterate youths.
At each level of education, in some instances age makes a difference too. In the established democracies of Western Europe, older people are much more likely to take an interest in politics and to name a party they support. In post-Communist countries younger people are more likely to be positive about the new regime but less likely to be proud of their country. In Latin America, older people are more likely to prefer democracy to an undemocratic alternative.
In established European democracies, education is consistently the most important influence, having a significant effect on all the measures of political involvement except voting. Age also has a significant effect on interest in politics and satisfaction with democracy, but it is less than education. To a limited extent, material prosperity is independently significant. In post-Communist countries, education has a significant but limited influence on freedom to take an interest in politics, satisfaction with democracy and rejecting undemocratic alternatives, and age shows a limited influence on interest and pride in country. In Latin American countries, age consistently shows a strictly limited significance, while education only influences interest in politics and rejecting undemocratic politics.
The experience of youth in Europe and Latin America are paralleled on other continents. In the 1998 New Korea Barometer, Koreans replied in ways similar to Latin Americans and East and West Europeans (see figure 2). Koreans are even more likely to have a party for whom they will vote and to be interested in politics than the average elsewhere; they are more satisfied with their current regime than the average Latin American; and a majority are proud of their country and reject undemocratic alternatives. The tendency for younger Koreans to be more democratic is marginal rather than substantial.
In the major new democracy of the African continent, the Republic of South Africa, a similar pattern of popular support for democracy is found, notwithstanding very sharp divisions by race, language and material conditions within the society. A 1999 South African representative survey by the independent research group IDASA finds 60 percent are very likely to vote in the forthcoming general election, and 53 percent follow politics most or some of the time, levels of political involvement similar to other continents. Moreover, age differences are marginal. The radical transformation of the Republic from an apartheid dictatorship to an African National Congress democracy can raise uncertainties and anxieties. Nonetheless, the IDASA survey finds that optimists are in the majority, and outnumber the pessimists by a margin of five to three. Moreover, a majority of all South African age groups are optimistic about the country's future.
A caution for analysing the results
Altogether, the results of the survey are a caution against "sociologizing" politics, that is, reducing political involvement and political values to social differences in age, education or economic conditions. In post-Communist Europe and in Latin America the five social influences--age, education, material prosperity, church attendance and gender--explain hardly any variance in political involvement.
Only in Western Europe is there some evidence of social differences affecting political involvement. Because government poses no threat to individual liberty and democracy can be taken for granted there, involvement in politics is optional or even a "consumption" good. West Europeans who are educated and prosperous may enjoy politics as part of a wider range of social activities occupying their leisure time. Because freedom from the state is secure and institutions of civil society are effective, there is not the pressure on individuals to become politically involved--or be on guard against--the state. Such pressures have been real for most citizens in new democracies.
Re-enforcing the warning against sociologizing politics, detailed analyses of post-Communist new democracies shows that the chief influences on political involvement are political, for example, how strongly people dislike the former undemocratic regime or trust new political institutions.
While popular demand for democracy is high around the world, our research emphasizes the importance of "supply side" obstacles to political involvement. Obstacles are most obvious in an undemocratic political system. When elections offer no choice, people can be apathetic, cynical or frustrated. New democracies also display many shortcomings. Some are only partly free or broken-backed, because even though competitive elections are held, governors often act as if they are not accountable to the electorate, and widespread corruption detracts from the rule of law. The Russian Federation today is an example of a new democracy that gives democrats many grounds for concern.
Impact of the results on policymakers
Comparing the political involvement of young and old across continents and countries emphasizes that people of all ages tend to share many political norms. Even if they differ, the differences cannot be accounted for by age. Everywhere there is a readiness to vote for a party at election time and a very high level of national pride. Interest in politics is found in similar proportions in most countries, and the same is true of satisfaction with democracy. In new democracies of post-Communist Europe and Latin America, the Churchill hypothesis that an imperfect democracy is preferable to undemocratic rule receives widespread endorsement too.
The influences that matter most for political involvement are amenable to influence by public policy. The evidence from around the world supports the following policy prescriptions:
promotes democratic political involvement.
development promotes democratic political involvement.
Because education promotes economic development as well as democracy, a country with rising levels of education and economic development may achieve a "virtuous" spiral, in which both the economy and the polity undergo radical and positive changes.
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