How young people can prevent democratic backsliding

Common Futures Conversations community members outline ideas for local and community-level solutions to tackle the global issue of democratic backsliding.

Explainer Published 13 July 2021 Updated 19 July 2021 3 minute READ

In the past few years, democracy has deteriorated across the world, reflected in the erosion of electoral processes, political participation, democratic political cultures, and civil liberties, and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index says 2020 was the worst year since 2006 due to the pandemic causing regression in 80 countries.  

But despite that worrying trend, democracy and respect for human rights actually improved in a number of places across the world, such as Malawi where a panel of High Court judges overturned the 2019 presidential election results and called a new election - an incredible service to democracy which led to the country being named The Economist Country of the Year, and the constitutional court judges being awarded the Chatham House Prize

In addition, not all setbacks equate to democratic backsliding as many countries are still in the process of consolidating their democracies. This is not a linear process because democratization develops in stages which creates uncertainty, but there is a clear difference between this and true threats to democracy itself.

However, many argue that young people’s faith in democratic politics is lower than any other age group and millennials are more disillusioned with democracy than previous generations were at the same age. Arguing that, for the first time since records began, a majority of young people are reportedly dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. 

Youth tell a different story 

Therefore, one key trend often highlighted in relation to democratic backsliding is young people’s supposed mistrust of and disinterest in democracy, with low voter turnout and a higher tendency to support populist candidates often seen as symptoms of democratic apathy. 

Hans Kundnani on youth participating in democracy.

But the Common Futures Conversations Youth Survey found more than 70 per cent of young people are highly engaged in politics and engage in a range of key democratic activities such as discussing politics, voting, protesting, and writing to the media. So young people are hardly disinterested in politics, their work is actually crucial to addressing democratic backsliding.  

The ways they choose to engage with democratic principles do tend to differ from the expected practices of the international political community. Similarly, there is not one singular threat to counter, therefore multiple approaches to addressing democratic backsliding are precisely what is needed—with local taking priority over global. 

Graph outlining the ways young people engaged with politics, from the Common Futures Conversations Youth Survey 2019.

In the past 12 months, have you done any of the following?
Source: Common Futures Conversations Youth Survey 2019

In discussing experiences from across the two continents, the CFC community learned that the true causes of democratic backsliding differ drastically across national contexts. Based on these national experiences, the community developed three priority areas to counter democratic backsliding – civil society institution-building, reinforcing the importance of community education, and supporting modern media.  

Alert launchers in civil society - Anonymous

Preventing democracy from backsliding requires constitutional guarantees that the problems worrying people are being responded to. Creating a space for ‘alert launchers’ helps create accountability and protect democratic rights because such a system enables elected representatives to alert the government to problems concerning democracy and human rights, and to work with the public, organizing meetings with different groups within the population to understand the main concerns.  

Protecting the right to protest is crucial to democracy, especially for those who struggle to be heard through formal routes.

Safia Sangster, Common Futures Conversations, United Kingdom

As with a petition requiring an answer, if an alert launcher receives enough questions or concerns about an issue then this would be raised to the government and officials would be supported to create policy solutions. This system raises awareness of democratic backsliding, prevents governments or transnational firms from having too much unaccountable power, and enhances civil society.  

Democratic community education - Nanjala Were, Kenya 

When people do not know much about democratic principles then democratic backsliding is more likely to happen. Recently in Kenya, the independence of the judiciary system was being threatened, individual rights increasingly infringed and, with general elections coming up in 2022, worries are growing about a peaceful transition of power and the state of democracy. 

We must support young people to get enlightened in order to hold political office holders accountable for their actions.

Olalekan Ojumu, Common Futures Conversations, Nigeria

Kenya’s future is the youth but it is the adults who currently vote, so supporting adult community education on democracy through forums, campaigns, workshops, and training that involve community outreach at the grassroot level is vital. Creating spaces for communities to learn about democracy in their country encourages people to support democratic principles.  

Protecting and reviving information - Laura Sanzarello, Italy 

Accountability is a fundamental pillar of a working democratic system, so a free and fair media is invaluable. Hungary and Poland are recent examples of how countries can easily slip into populist extremism and democratic backsliding when the media is unable to fulfil this role. The cases of censorship and repression are surging across Europe, painting a worrying picture of the intense pressure under which freedom of expression is currently operating. 

The focus should be shifted from democratic backsliding to democratic deepening.

Aydn Parrott, Common Futures Conversations, South Africa

Many young activists and students have taken control of this issue by creating new and interactive ways of engaging the population – especially younger citizens – in politics by using social media. A great strength of this approach is the presentation of important themes in accessible, interactive, and appealing ways to successfully bridge the gap between what is perceived as intellectual information and a supposedly disengaged audience.  

The protection of media freedoms and the development of new forms of communication, facilitates the spread of information, increases young people’s understanding of democratic principles and makes them aware of the reality of their nation, neighbourhood and political system. 

Graph showing how far young people feel listened to by politicians.

Do you feel politicians in your country listen to people of your age group? (0=Not at all; 10=Always)
Source: Common Futures Conversations Youth Survey 2019

Moving forward

Democratization is not a linear process and requires continuous  support and development. When democratic backsliding or a lack of continued democratization do occur, young people are often pointed to as part of the problem. In defiance of this is a mountain of evidence in the form of youth political engagement, protest movements and online activity. Their ideas and approaches may differ from expected practices, but the grassroots and collaborative statements from CFC’s community attest to young people’s dedication to supporting democracy. Approaches to democratic improvement should therefore draw on the undervalued potential that is young people’s democratic spirit.