Disillusioned Aussie youth diss democracy

Dec 15, 2020

Young Australians now rank among the groups most dissatisfied with democracy in the world –better than among others like Venezuela and the US but worse than Ghana and Peru.

Credit – Unsplash

The finding comes from an October 2020 report, Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy, by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge which forms part of the work of the Centre for the Future of Democracy.

It uses the largest-yet global dataset on democratic legitimacy – combining data from more than 4.8 million respondents, 43 sources, and 160 countries between 1973 and 2020.

The Institute found that globally younger generations “have become steadily more dissatisfied with democracy – not only in absolute terms, but also relative to older cohorts at comparable stages of life.”

The Australian picture is not pretty. Countries ranking below us in terms of levels of dissatisfaction are, in order, Columbia, Venezuela, the US, Brazil, Greece, and Spain. Ranking above us in ascending order (ie is progressively less dissatisfied) are Mozambique, Kenya, Coast Rica, Botswana, Georgia, South Africa, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Senegal, El Salvador, Honduras, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, Peru, and Bolivia.

The report argues that a major contributor to youth discontent is economic exclusion which is driving a growing gap between attitudes of younger and older generations.

“In developed democracies, rising wealth inequality and youth unemployment have left younger generations with lower incomes, higher costs of living, and less financial wealth than prior generations. This has especially affected the lives of millennials in developed democracies, and in particular the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and countries in southern Europe that were hit by the eurozone crisis,” the report says.

In Australia, it’s easy to see other reasons. High student debt, workplace casualisation, wage theft, punitive policies for the unemployed, and the problems of finding affordable housing are all contributors.

In defence, the Morrison Government argues there are plenty of jobs – but only if you are happy to earn $3 an hour picking berries while living in sub-standard accommodations and being ripped off for food and services and accept that the current Job Seeker rate is a disincentive to work.

Meanwhile, the marginally less dissatisfied – the older generation – enjoy the benefits of negative gearing, indexed pensions, and dividend imputation credits.

Not that this has been enough to satisfy the older. An earlier report, Global Satisfaction with Democracy (January 2020), found that there “has been an especially acute crisis of democratic faith” in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ democracies of the US, UK, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The proportion of citizens dissatisfied with democracy in this group has doubled since the 1990s, from a quarter to half of all individuals. Much of the increase is accounted for by the United States with the proportion of Americans who are dissatisfied with democracy increasing by more than over one-third of the population since the mid-1990s; while it’s risen by 19% in Australia; 18% in Britain, and almost a tenth of Canadians. New Zealand is better than the other Anglo-Saxons perhaps because they have a significant proportion of the population who fought the Anglo-Saxons to a draw when they first invaded.

It was not always thus. In the mid-1990s the majority of citizens in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australasia – were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then dissatisfaction with democracy levels among this cohort has risen, from 47.9 to 57.5% – the highest level since the data series began.

“The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005. The year that marks the beginning of the so-called ‘global democratic recession’ is also the high point for global satisfaction with democracy, with just 38.7% of citizens dissatisfied in that year. Since then, the proportion of ‘dissatisfied’ citizens has risen by almost one-fifth (18.8%) of the population,” the report says.

As a result, many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.

In contrast, in Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is at all-time highs. In these nations, representing 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

Needless to say, they are all characterised by effective social policies which reduce inequality, provide high-quality education, and make services almost universally available and in Switzerland’s case feature a lot of direct democracy.

Amazing as it may seem to proponents of the Anglosphere concept the report “shows a number of other bright spots, above all in Asia. In democracies in South Asia, Northeast Asia, and above all in Southeast Asia, levels of civic contentment are significantly higher than in other regions. For now, much of Asia has avoided the crisis of democratic faith affecting other parts of the world.”

The report ponders what might have caused it all. “What can explain this synchronised downturn in public sentiment across high-income, English-speaking democracies? First, given the concurrence of the shift with the timing of the global financial crisis, economic factors may play an important role. Yet this explanation, while a part of the story, would struggle to explain why Australia, which largely avoided an economic downturn after 2008, appears as negatively affected as Britain and the United States.

“An alternative though related view is that the financialisation of the US, British, Canadian, and Australian economies has led to this outcome by exacerbating spatial inequality between a handful of successful, globally-integrated cosmopolitan cities – New York, London, Toronto, or Sydney – and the rest of their societies.

“Evidence suggests that rising income inequality also decreases satisfaction with democracy and the effect may be especially strong where entire regions of a country feel left behind.”

One other Institute hypothesis suggests a possible interaction between the confrontational, two-party model of Anglo-Saxon politics, and the effect of social media in siloing society into opposing ‘tribes’. But it doesn’t mention another possible factor – the presence of media such as those owned by Murdoch and others of similar ilk.

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