So first the good news: contrary to popular beliefs among political pundits but in line with what many of us active in youth politics had a gut feeling about, young Europeans are neither apolitical, nor particularly extremist, and certainly not euro-sceptic.
Perhaps the most striking result of the first outcome phase of FEPS’s Millennial Dialogue project is that despite selecting a sample of three EU member states with a very different socio-economic situation, the young people in the survey give very similar answers to all of the questions related to their life, their aspirations and their priorities, even if their answers to the questions about the politics of their countries differ. This indicates a clear scope for an expanded European project, as well as for common political action among young people in different countries: the results validate the image of a generation without borders, cultivated for some time by the young political left.
What is also heartening is to see that Europe’s young people clearly have their heart on the right (left) side. The answers are not only similar across countries, but they are also similarly compatible with a left-wing political agenda: across the board, young people give high to very high importance ratings to such leftist mainstays as “ensuring equality of opportunities for all” or “improving and maintaining good educational facilities”, while “building and maintaining a strong military force” is considerably less popular. They furthermore rank the economy and environment well above right-wing agendas such as terrorism and immigration in their assessment of which factors will affect their future and their quality of life.
Among all of this good news, there is obviously a snag: the results so far reported appear to contradict the dire situation European social democracy has found itself in for over a decade, and arguably longer. If young people are politically engaged and identify with the left’s priorities and objectives, and more so than those in older age groups, then it should logically follow that in electoral politics, the left should be experiencing a secular rise as older groups gradually die off and the Millennial generation enters the electoral stage. Instead, social democracy appears to be quite literally dying out as its core vote ages, and other parties on the political left struggle to maintain a foothold even if they seem in less immediate danger of extinction, and periodically experience peaks of success. All of the left is in serious danger of the fatal erosion of their support by various right-wing extremist and euro-sceptic formations, whose aims run directly contrary to the sentiments expressed by the young people surveyed.
The key to resolving this apparent contradiction lies in the answers to the survey’s questions that directly relate to party politics. For even though young people show themselves to be highly political in their general interests and their world-view, they are at best lukewarm towards party politics (referred to simply as “politics” in the actual questions and answers, perhaps rather deeply reflecting the neo-liberal cast of the political as a sphere separate from life): “politics” only appears very low down a wash list of general interests, young people claim their generation is less interested in politics than their parents’ and grandparents’, and very few report taking part in political debates, demonstrations or meetings.
Interestingly, the only question that yields significantly divergent answers between the three countries surveyed is also related to party politics: when asked to what extent politics and politicians deliver the same priorities that the respondents were also asked to grade for themselves, a staggering gap between the countries opens. Whereas in Germany, respondents seem to see very little difference between their own priorities and their politicians’, Italian and Polish youth seem to trust their politicians’ priorities only half as much as they trust their own, and in one case even report that politicians seriously over-prioritise a topic (the military in Italy).
When those of the respondents who indicate that they would not vote in an upcoming election (a surprisingly small proportion of the total respondents – notably, in the qualitative study many of the respondents indicating that they would vote give negative reasons such as that those who don’t vote, can’t complain) are asked why, the answers from the three countries once again fall into line, and the rather dull “I don’t trust politicians” tops everywhere, accompanied by such interchangeable sentiments as “all parties are the same” and “I don’t think my vote makes a difference”. All of these responses clearly indicate thatyoung people tend to see “politics” and politicians as a monolithic class interest that has little to do with their own world, priorities and opinions. In at least one sense, neo-liberalism appears to have achieved its goal of the irrelevance of politics.
From all of this, the conclusion should clearly be that the contradiction between left-wing sentiment and erratic voting (or non-voting) behaviour among Millennials stems from a clear source, namely the incorporation of most of the party-political left and especially of social democracy into a broadly neo-liberal consensus defining politics as a sphere distinct from society, and certainly from the economy. This has been a long process, and has traditionally been offset by social democracy’s strong voter bonding (using traditional means of communication) and later by its ability to tap into new voter potential by renewing itself content-wise, but it currently appears to be at a dead-end: in today’s hyper-connected world, politicians can no longer hide their inability to deliver on their values, and the most common excuses (“market pressure” being the most popular one) are quickly invalidated by alert bloggers. It is not surprising that in such a climate, the mainstream left cannot prosper: in fact, it cannot as long as it does not recognise that there is a more fundamental contradiction between being mainstream and being on the left.
One way of resolving this more fundamental contradiction is suggested by the survey’s results themselves: among the barrage of negative sentiment about politicians, young people report that “the views of younger people are largely ignored by most politicians” and that “very few, if any politicians encourage people of their age to get involved in politics”. Now, these are relatively easy to tackle, even if until now they rarely are tackled: in today’s aforementioned hyper-connected world, the views of young people are easy to tap into using social media, and besides being an ageing movement in general social democracy also has the strongest tradition of organising among young people through youth organisations. It would suffice to give more credence and more responsibility to these views and organisations to resolve a large part of the contradiction: all it takes is for the movement’s cadres to come to terms with the fact that young people would generally prefer it to be resolved in favour of the left, rather than the mainstream. As the study shows.
Young people enter a situation where they are unable to sustain themselves or their families economically, and feel powerless to decisively alter political circumstances. There appears to be a big generational gap in politics and young people feel their opinions are strikingly underrepresented.
Hence, most migrants from that area are young men, which is not the easiest group to integrate. The exodus of a young (relatively) well educated generation could thus leave these countries behind and in decades of deadlock. The lack of interest of young people in politics prevents the necessary political momentum and change from happening. The aspiration for progressive politics should be to create incentives and possibilities for those people to work and live in their home countries, and try to find long term solutions. Also a shift of attitude of the established parties towards the youth in those countries is urgently needed.
The idea that parties do suffer from a fatal illness called “bureaucratization” and that they will die from suffocation due to a lack of democratic oxygen supplemented by a hypertrophy of internal procedures is certainly not new.
At the very beginning of the last century, the Weberian approach of modern politics contributed to the formulation of the paradox still defining the nowadays issue of political parties. On one hand, these organizations are, in Max Weber’s own words, the “children of democracy” and have proved themselves indispensable to the holding of elections despite the fact they can also accommodate authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, they exemplify the oligarchic trends of institutions driven by a quest for efficiency and performance. The basic tenets of this cruel and realistic diagnostic were but forwards by Weber’s disciple, Roberto Michels, as soon as before World War I, in a famous book dedicated to the rise of an organized social-democratic movement in Europe.
During the last 15 years, Western parties, and especially parties belonging to the European social-democrat family, have suffered from a renewal of suspicion and criticism aiming not only at their bureaucratizing trends but mainly at their decline as political performers capable of translating citizens’ aspirations into viable political claims and governmental decisions.
Among political scientists, the late Peter Mair was probably the most provocative analyst of this alleged decline.
While in previous texts co-written with Richard Katz, Peter Mair had linked the disappearance of competitive mass parties with their functional success as organizations and consequent mutation into quasi-governmental agencies inside stabilized democracies, he took a much more pessimistic direction in his last works.
When using the metaphor of cartels, Mair and Katz had meant that parties could be understood as political enterprises that had succeeding in dominating and organizing a once competitive market. They had become the national pillars of the quite consensual and very “consociational” European democracies of the 1970s and 1980s.
Mair’s brilliant and posthumous book entitled “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy” tells us another story about a new century in which “the age of party democracy has passed” and politics is dying. According to Mair’s last analysis of the state of art of democracy in Europe, the weakening of national institutions by globalization has put a slow but potentially fatal blow to modern politics since the 1980s. The great threat to traditional parties is not a brutal disappearance shaped into “pasokization”. This threat takes three lethal forms that a slow erosion of their scores conceals: growing abstention, partisan disaffiliation and electoral volatility. According to this, parties would have become vessels without sailors, maps and directions on an unknown ocean.
To a certain extent, many results of the FEPS survey could be read as a validation of Mair’s pessimism. The thesis of “the hollowing of western democracy” is primarily supported by two undeniable facts: the Millennials take much less interest in politics than their elders do and they do not trust political parties very much.
However, despite this gloomy prospect, there is some light and hope for traditional parties in the survey.
The data showing that the Millennials do not support the populist agenda are particularly encouraging for idealists and humanists. Neither Europhobia nor xenophobia characterizes the dominant political attitude of a new generation of citizens.
Also encouraging, at least for technocrats, are the answers provided according to which, despite a lack of trust, young voters tend to retain their support for traditional parties because of technical experience in governmental matters.
And finally, Millennials’ confession that their voting behavior remains shaped by the influence of family background might delight cynical strategists.
These three rays of light could certainly please a wide range of politicians as they melt the picture of the imminence of a populist wave capable of sweeping well-established institutions. The likelihood of a “back to the 1930’s” scenario fueled by the political adventurism of a despaired generation is far from being confirmed by today’s survey.
However, the sweetness of the sun of an early spring should not lull anyone and two points must be highlighted.
First, the weight of family influence will not last: the results of simple actuarial calculations will not remain favourable to parties born in the 19th century and hegemonic in the post-war decades.
Second, as voting is not compulsory in most countries and as young citizens are not attracted to the polls, the impact of the Millennials’ political moderation could prove unable to counterbalance a rise in right or left-wing radicalism among older groups feeling threatened by any change induced by globalization.
In other words, if Millennials do not represent a threat for traditional parties or democracies, it would prove dangerous to neglect them and to forget to mobilize them. And, from this point of view, two lessons of the survey are bitter but must be swallowed.
The first lesson is that, despite numerous attempts to rejuvenate their image, traditional parties are described in terms that could be borrowed from a Cohen movie, as organizations “for old men”, deaf to the needs and aspirations of younger people.
The second lesson is tougher because it does call for much more imagination and boldness than programmatic revisionism or policy reviews: Millennials demand better representation through parties but are not ready to devote much time to them. What the survey brings to light is that if Mair has been correct in diagnosing a party crisis in Europe, he might have confused a decrease of desire for politics and a lack of political desire. The answers provided by the Millennials do not show a democratic despair supplemented by an interest for authoritarian remedies or a will of individualist withdrawal from politics. Young people want to reconnect with politics but without spending their life on the agora or trusting blindly permanent delegates: nor “participative democracy”, nor a “plebiscitary regime” suits their needs. The urge for new procedures reconnecting citizen and political bodies is well illustrated by the answers related to the appreciation of Beppe Grillo’s party: it is evident that political support for the program is weaker than the attraction for its informal digital structure. Other answers express at the same time a readiness to get together and distaste for traditional militancy.
Contrary to Mair’s last pessimistic views, parties could still have a future as political vehicles but it is quite obvious, according to the survey, that they won’t survive as entrenched camps led by senior officers. The point is not anymore to optimize their electoral results through one-time tactics but to boost their appeal thanks to a global strategy and the invention of a new corporate model. In order to do so, the first step is certainly to come back as social movements through which people will want to gather again. This is by the way less a great discovery than a reminder: social democracy was never as strong as when it was a network of political and socio-economic associations. Today, the clock is ticking.
The Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Center for American Progress have launched a transatlantic initiative known as the “Millennial Dialogue”to engage with and better understand the priorities and values narrative of those aged between 15 and 34. With the first phase complete, on 24th February, FEPS presented the early findings to the policymaking public in Brussels. This was followed by commentary from key political players and a questions and answers session with the press and the Brussels public.
Discussion with Brando Benifei, MEP and Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Intergroup on Youth Affairs (Italy); Anne Johnson, Executive Director, Generation Progress (US); and David Lewis, Founder and CEO, Audiencenet (UK).
As established parties falter when attracting younger voters, some assume that there is a lack of interest in politics among young people. However, there is evidence of growing activism in non-party political movements and other civil society organisations. As such, there is a gap in the broader understanding of this demographic among political practitioners and a need to re-engage.
Certain recent campaigns, such as that of President Obama in the USA have had some success; while other movements like the Indignados and the Occupy Movement have emerged as alternative points of political engagement. The Millennial Dialogue seeks to address these challenges and provide innovative approaches to engaging with young people.
This began with a large international survey on millennial values, using innovative and sophisticated methodologies to gain insights often absent from political discourse. This research aims to provide a basis for a comprehensive millennial policy agenda, one that interacts with young people rather than accepting their loss from the political process.
Some excerpts from the survey:
Interest in politics:
7% of Polish 15-17 year olds said they were interested in politics. 18% of Germans of the same age showed interest while none of the Italians did.
Influence of young people:
64% of young Germans think that most politicians largely ignore the views of younger people.
Gender and sexual politics:
75% of Polish millennials believe in the importance of equality in gender and sexual-orientation in society and feel that politicians have a duty to promote such equality.
Imagine if the people who decided how today’s election was run (MPs, Lords, the UK Electoral Commissioners etc) were all aged 15-34… what changes would they make? In our most recent research we asked 1,000+ UK millennials which electoral reform measures they thought would encourage more young citizens to vote.
Just under half (45%) of UK millennials said they were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, compared to 41% who were against the idea (14% said “don’t know”). Perhaps as a consequence of the lowering of the voting age for the Scotland independence referendum, the proportion of Scottish millennials who think the voting age should be lowered to 16 was significantly higher at 65%.
Those in favour of lowering the voting age often used “if you’re old enough to…” reasoning to explain their view:
“If they are old enough to join the army they should be able to vote”
“If you are old enough to work and pay tax you should be able to vote.”
Those against lowering the voting age questioned whether 16 and 17 year olds were mature enough to make this kind of decision:
“The voting age should most definitely stay at 18, if anything raise it to 21 (and I’m only 19!). Most 16-17 year olds are not mature enough to make reasoned, rational decisions about who to vote for.”
John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has said he wants to see online voting introduced by 2020. The overwhelming majority (90%) of UK millennials agree that having the ability to vote online would encourage more young people to vote. While they did express some concerns about the security risks involved, the consensus was that the potential upside (increased turnout) far outweighs the possibility of the system being hacked.
“With people working long hours and with various problems with transport links, this can make voting seem like a chore, even if it is only once every 4/5 years. With online voting apathy would no longer be an excuse. Voting would appeal more to younger people who use their phones to organise their lives. This would also reduce potential queues at the polling station…”
“Online voting – if this could be safely implemented – it would be 100% a yes from me. Resources spent sorting through the current voting system would be much less, results would be almost instantaneous, and it would encourage more people to vote.”
Polling Station Locations
When we explained to the UK millennials that in Norway and Sweden citizens can now vote on electronic machines in shopping centres, on trains, in airports etc, they were broadly in favour of this idea (81%). However, it was soon pointed out that if online voting was implemented then precinct/transport voting machine technology would soon become obsolete.
“Access to polling stations should be increased. I like the sound of being able to vote in as many places as possible, including shopping centres and in places of travel. It’s often difficult to get to your assigned polling station, especially for disabled people, so the closer the station the better and an increase in the number of places that can be voted at would help that.”
“The idea of being able to vote on planes and in supermarkets is quite clever but with the advance of technology this would lose significance as voters will just be able to vote online anyway.”
On a related note, Adam Coomer, a member of the Young Humanists, recently argued against having polling stations in churches citing studies suggesting that contextual priming can affect how people vote. Church polling stations could be particularly inappropriate or even off-putting for millennials. We know from our Audiomonitor UK (Feb 2015) data that only 26% of those aged 15-24 consider themselves to be Christian and just 2% regularly go to Church.
Extended Voting Period
Almost two thirds (64%) of young people in the UK were in favour of a longer time period for voting. Those in favour of being able to vote over a longer time period thought it would be a good idea because it would be easier for people who are away or busy around the time of the election to vote. In the qualitative discussions, the consensus was again broadly in favour of an extended voting period but it was thought that two months (as is the case in Norway) is too long. One of the more popular comments/suggestions was to allow one week to vote.
“Voting over a longer period – I don’t see how this can be anything but beneficial, it can encourage voting for those that are busy on the day of voting.”
“Allowing two months to cast votes is too long; people might procrastinate or put it off and eventually forget. The one-day voting system means that people who are on holiday or otherwise have difficulty accessing a polling station/postal vote during that day, no matter how long the voting hours are, might miss out. A compromise could be drawn with something like a voting week.”
The data on compulsory voting was clear: UK Millennials generally think it’s too extreme and only 38% were in favour.
“Forcing people to participate in a voting election would start to seem more like a dictatorship style system instead of the democratic method that it is trying to encourage and develop. It would be akin to using guns to force people to sign a peace treaty… not really the best image you want to project to other nations or to the populous.”
“Compulsory voting sounds a bit extreme and difficult to enforce. It might also lead to people making rash rather than informed decisions about who to vote for.”
Looking beyond the Millennial Dialogue project, there is evidence from the voter turnout numbers that voting systems have a big impact on youth voter turnout. At the 2010 election, 44% of Britons aged between 18 and 24 voted, compared with 76% of those aged 65 and over. The difference is less stark in other countries with more representative voting systems. For example, in the 2013 German mixed-member proportion election, 64% of first-time voters cast their ballots, compared with 75% for over-70s. Britain’s first-past-the-post system holds down the smaller insurgent parties – like the Green Party – which are popular among young voters but stand no chance of winning more than a handful of seats, making voting seem less effective.