Dr. Eldin Fahmy - Why is it important to promote young people's participation in conventional politics - and how can this be best achieved?


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Workshop on the Political Participation of Young People 21-22 June, 2013.
Gençlerin Siyasi Katılımı 21 – 22 Haziran 2013

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Dr. Eldin Fahmy - Why is it important to promote young people's participation in conventional politics - and how can this be best achieved?

  1. 1. Why is it important to promote young people's participation in conventional politics - and how can this be best achieved? Dr Eldin Fahmy (University of Bristol)1 Presentation to Workshop on the Political Participation of Young People, Bilgi University, Istanbul – 22nd June 2013 1. Introduction In this paper I will argue that understandings of the nature, extent, and dynamics of youth political participation need to be informed by the following perspectives: 1. Thinking about the nature of ‘the political’ in this context often emphasises the diversity of forms of youth political behaviours extending well beyond conventional party politics. Whilst it is important to acknowledge this diversity (and thus the extent of young people’s existing political engagement), the continued exclusion of youth from political elites remains a key barrier to strategies for greater political equality. 2. A focus on youth-specific explanations of youth non-participation in conventional politics often ignores the effects of wider changes in the external political environment in shaping participation decisions and strategies. These are systemic changes which (to varying degrees) affect the dynamics of political participation across rich countries including, but by no means limited to, young people. 3. Youth-specific explanations tend to encourage a deficit-based model of youth participation. In understanding youth non-participation in conventional politics we tend to ask why do young people choose not to participate, rather than why are our political institutions failing to engage with different publics? This suggests that reform of political structures should be an urgent priority if we are to genuinely engage politically marginalised groups, including young people. 4. Advancing understanding of the modalities of youth political participation should be situated within the context of a wider understanding of the consequences of processes of social exclusion for the participation of marginalised social groups within society including, but not limited to, the sphere of political decision-making. Political exclusion cannot be separated from the wider structures of social exclusion in contemporary societies across the global North and South. Addressing this wider agenda highlights the ways in which social power is exercised in highly unequal societies and with what consequences for socially marginalised populations. In addressing this agenda I will be drawing on existing theory and evidence in a European context in order to offer some suggestions about how we can facilitate greater involvement by young people in political decision making with the objective of increasing young people’s capacity to influence the decisions which shape their circumstances and future prospects. However, I shall also argue that these perspectives have much wider applications in understanding youth political action internationally including in both rich and poor countries. 1 Contact: School for Policy Studies, Univ. of Bristol, 8 Priory Rd., Bristol UK BS8 1TZ. T:+44(0)1179546703; E: eldin.fahmy@bris.ac.uk. This document presents work in progress and should not be disseminated or quoted without written permission of the author.
  2. 2. 1. Youth, ‘the political’, and participation In a European context it is now well established that many young people are disengaged from formal political processes and institutions. This is reflected both in young people’s political behaviours, and in their attitudes to formal political institutions and officially sanctioned mechanisms of participation. Despite some significant cross-national variations, across European countries as a whole young people are less likely to vote in local, national and supranational elections. Where such data is available, young people are less likely than older citizens to have contacted their elected representatives, to be members of mainstream political parties, or to stand for public office where they are eligible to do so. To some extent, the limited participation of youth in conventional politics is also reflected in young peoples’ political attitudes. This is certainly the case with regard to the cognitive dimensions of political beliefs, where young Europeans consistently report lower levels of interest in politics compared with older citizens, lower levels of political knowledge, and more negative evaluations of their own political competency or efficacy. Within popular discourse, the extent of young people’s non-participation in conventional politics have prompted numerous claims about youth political ‘apathy’ and an emerging ‘crisis’ of youth participation. As I shall argue below, there are good reasons for concern about the limited extent of young European’s engagement with formal politics – though for rather different reasons to those usually voiced within popular commentaries on this issue. However, as many academic youth researchers have noted, these concerns sometimes reflect a very narrow interpretation of ‘the political’ and on this basis seriously misrepresent the nature and extent of youth political engagement. In general, and like many other politically marginalised groups, young people’s political engagement tends to be characterised by relatively informal and/or unstructured modes of political expression and action ranging from participation in political protests, demonstrations, and occupations to online activism, ethical consumption, and support for ‘single issue’ campaigns around socio-political and environmental issues. Since these forms of political action are often overlooked within public discourses on youth political ‘apathy’, the extent of young people’s political engagement is also under-estimated. At the same time, commentary about youth political ‘apathy’ often reflect concerns for the continued legitimacy of existing political structures and institutions much more than any specific interest in promoting young people’s empowerment as political actors. As the recent waves of political protest across southern Europe and the Middle East show, concerns about the potential for political instability arising from youth disengagement from officially sanctioned political mechanisms are not without foundation. However, in considering the question of how to re-engage youth with Europe’s formal mechanisms of political participation and representation our focus should be on how can we realise formal rights to equal representation in the decisions which shape young people’s futures, rather than upon how can we restore the legitimacy of existing political structures and processes. Whatever the merits of informal and unstructured mechanisms of youth participation, the continued de facto exclusion of young people from the authoritative mechanisms for the exercise of political power should be a matter of concern for all those committed to the pursuit of political equality. Notwithstanding the limitations of existing institutions, they remain a key mechanism for holding socially powerful groups to account. To this extent, the continued and systematic underrepresentation of socially marginalised groups within these structures, including the young - as well as women, ethnic minorities, workers, and the poor - is rightly a focus of concern. I will illustrate this with one concrete, if contentious, example. On 15th February 2003 the largest protest march in British history took place in London in protest against the imminent British involvement in the invasion of Iraq, with anything up to two million people demonstrating against the UK government’s proposed course of action. This included very large numbers of supposedly
  3. 3. ‘apathetic’ young people who were in fact over-represented amongst the protestors. Despite the scale of these protests, the UK Parliament approved the UK Government’s ‘case for war’ by a substantial majority committing UK armed forces to involvement in a war resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Despite the importance of political protest, it would seem that the only way to effectively hold political leaders to account continues to be to secure effective representation of the people in the institutions by which state power is exercised. 2. The social context of youth participation Given the continued relevance of conventional mechanisms of political participation in advancing young people’s concerns and issue agendas, how then can we best facilitate young people’s involvement in political decision-making? In addressing this question, it is important first to acknowledge that declining levels of citizen engagement in officially sanctioned forms of participation is an issue which is not confined to young people, and that youth-specific accounts therefore do not provide a wholly adequate explanation. On the contrary, declining levels of participation in electoral politics have, to a greater or lesser degree, affected all of the Western democracies, for example, with regard to trends in voting and membership of political parties. Similar declines in levels of political trust, and in satisfaction with government and the operation of democracy, have also been witnessed across European societies, and beyond, in recent decades. Changes over time in youth political engagement are therefore part of a wider disenchantment of Western publics with representative political institutions. It is of course notoriously difficult to disentangle period, cohort and generational effects in understanding the dynamics of youth participation, and the limitations of existing data sources continues to be a key barrier to addressing these issues. However, a decline in participation and trust has clearly become a systemic problem for Western democracies and we clearly cannot continue to explain youth disengagement solely in terms of either lifecycle or generational factors alone - important though these may be. Some authors have argued that young people’s position within the lifecycle may explain their relative disengagement from conventional politics, for example, as a result of their lack of exposure to the kinds of social networks which might facilitate engagement, as a result of their relative lack of politically relevant knowledge and competency, or as a result of more immediate concerns associated with transitions to adulthood in ‘crowding out’ an interest in wider political issues. Whilst these arguments undoubtedly have some merit, they do not in themselves explain the apparent and persistent decline over time in youth engagement with conventional politics. Others argue that young people are acquiring new political repertoires and styles, for example associated with the growth of ‘post-material’ politics, resulting in generational changes in the terms youth political engagement. Again, whilst these accounts have some merit they do not explain why similar trends are being observed amongst many older citizens in the Western democracies, nor indeed are they wholly consistent with the apparent resurfacing of more ‘traditional’ concerns with the politics of distribution, for example, within the ‘new politics’ of anti-globalisation and anticapitalist movements. On the contrary, the history of counter-hegemonic social movements in Europe demonstrates that the politics of recognition and identity have always marched hand-in-hand with concerns for the redistribution of wealth and power within capitalist societies. Addressing this agenda requires an acknowledgement that the centres of political and economic power in Western societies have become increasingly remote from mechanisms of public accountability in the eyes of many of Europe’s citizens – and that representative political institutions are perceived as being increasingly ineffective in bringing powerful economic interests within the locus of democratic control.
  4. 4. 3. Challenging deficit models of youth political participation The above observations suggest that we need to locate an account of the dynamics of youth political participation within the context of wider changes in the political economy of Western societies and their democratic institutions. On the whole, however, existing popular explanations for youth disengagement from officially sanctioned modes of participation have emphasised factors relating to young people themselves, rather than to changes in the institutional context of participation, or wider changes in the efficacy of political institutions and processes in meeting the demands of Western publics. Such accounts frequently refer to generational change in young people’s value orientations, for example, associated with increased individualism and the growing prevalence of privatised and/or anti-social values, sometimes linking such trends to wider cultural shifts in the social outlooks of Western publics associated with individualisation, post-modernisation, and post-materialism. To the extent that lifecycle factors are identified as key drivers of changes in the terms of young people’s political engagement, it is the things which young people lack (e.g. political knowledge, political competency, or a material stake in the outcomes of political processes) which typically informs accounts of youth non-participation. Challenging this narrative focusing on the deficiencies of youth involves listening more closely to the views of young people themselves in explaining their non-participation in conventional politics. Here, the message emerging from both quantitative and qualitative research in this area has generally been consistent. I will briefly summarise these accounts primarily drawing on evidence from UK studies, before considering their implications for efforts to promote greater participation by young people in electoral politics in the UK, in Europe as a whole, and elsewhere. Firstly, it is certainly clear that many young people feel that they do not sufficiently understand politics, and feel that they lack the political skills and competencies needed to operate as effective political actors. As a result, many young people not unsurprisingly ‘switch off’ from political debates which they find it difficult to follow. Secondly, many young people feel that politicians are untrustworthy and out of touch with the circumstances and choices faced by young people. The perception that politicians are not interested in young people’s views and opinions is widespread, alongside the perception that political decisions and policies do not reflect the interests of youth - and in many cases are in fact quite hostile to young people’s interests. Thirdly, many young people feel that there is increasingly little to choose between the main political parties in terms of the issue agendas they pursue – agendas which are in many cases widely perceived as being hostile to the interests of many young people. Moreover, existing political institutions are widely viewed as becoming increasingly ineffective in achieving positive changes in the circumstances which shape young people’s lives. 4. Addressing the institutional bases of non-participation Given the above observations, what should we conclude concerning effective strategies for promoting youth political participation? Firstly, as young people’s extensive involvement in political protest and diffuse forms of unconventional political action testifies, it is evidently not the case that young Europeans are disengaged from political action per se but rather specifically from electoral politics. To some extent this reflects a lack of political awareness and limited political competency with regard to the skills, networks and capacities needed to effectively engage in officially sanctioned forms of political action. This lack of political literacy may reflect the decline of agencies of political socialisation in the Western democracies which have traditionally provided a point of entry for many
  5. 5. young citizens into representative politics, for example, via the organised labour movement. To the extent that collective action and organisation continues to be provide a basis for the political education of youth, for example, via the new social movements and diffuse forms of community organisation and voluntary activity, this increasingly takes place outside the sphere of electoral politics. In the UK, efforts to improve the political literacy of youth have mainly focused around citizenship education. However, these state-sanctioned approaches are largely seek to address an apparent crisis of legitimation for existing political institutions, for example, through education in ‘good citizenship’ and ‘democratic values’ rather than providing young people with the skills necessary to engage in politics as competent political actors. Indeed, one might reasonably question why it has taken so long for such initiatives to bear fruit – and whose interests are served by the long-standing absence of political education for youth within the mainstream curriculum in schools. Whilst, like many other social groups, young people may often lack the skills necessary to effectively engage in conventional politics as active participants, they are more than capable of making quite sophisticated judgements about the efficacy of conventional political action and are equally capable of making reasoned evaluations about political institutions and actors. The evident antipathy which many young citizens feel towards officially sanctioned political institutions, actors, and processes is widely shared by many other citizens in the Western democracies. This palpable fact therefore requires us to take seriously the sentiments expressed by large segments of European electorates by considering how we might best reform existing institutions and processes to more effectively represent the interests of Europe’s citizens, and to provide more inclusive avenues for their active participation in political decision-making. Addressing this agenda requires us to consider how we can more effectively integrate the kinds of informal, unstructured and innovative forms of political engagement favoured by youth (and many other socially marginalised groups) with the authoritative political institutions and processes within which state power is exercised. In many Western societies, the basic institutional structures of conventional political participation have remained largely unaltered despite often profound social, technological, and economic changes in the post-1945 period. In the UK, for example, the basic structure and forms of democratic participation have not changed substantially since the achievement of universal suffrage in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a real danger that political institutions will become ossified in ways which effectively shut citizens out from effective participation in the institutions which shape their future. This presents an increasingly serious threat to the continued political stability of European societies given the scale of the social and economic challenges facing the continent now and in the near future. In the UK and elsewhere some efforts have been made in recent years to find new ways to engage with diverse publics (including young people), for example, through the use of innovative consultative mechanisms such as citizens’ juries, people’s panels, and deliberative polling methods. However, to date such efforts have remained essentially tokenistic since they have not been effectively integrated with the existing representative mechanisms where real political power is exercised. Without serious consideration of how we can more effectively ‘bridge the divide’ between formal political institutions and the more informal and unconventional mechanisms of political action which youth tend to prefer there is a risk that such innovations in democratic practice might simply fuel increased cynicism and alienation from public institutions. 5. Youth, political exclusion and social marginalisation Addressing this agenda also requires us to consider the wider political economy of activism and political engagement. Such an account might for example emphasise the ‘hollowing out’ of political parties with regard to their traditional support base and grass roots, and the increased ideological convergence of political parties in much of Europe around a broadly neo-liberal issue agenda. It might also emphasise the declining effectiveness of nation states in holding corporate power to
  6. 6. account, and the progressive widening of disparities in income and wealth both within European societies and beyond as drivers of increased political alienation or disaffection. As applied to the circumstances of young Europeans, it also specifically requires an acknowledgement of the corrosive effects of increasing inequalities in youth transitions in shaping the terms of young people’s political engagement. As noted above, the attitudes of many UK youth towards conventional politics reflects a growing perception that policies and legislation are increasingly undermining rather than supporting young people in making successful transitions to adulthood. Given this perception, it is perhaps unsurprising that many young people feel excluded from conventional politics and seek other avenues to express their views. Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that this perception reflects a realistic assessment of the direction of current policy in the UK towards youth. Re-engaging young people with conventional politics therefore also requires a commitment on the part of policy makers to developing a more positive policy environment on youth issues which is capable of demonstrating to young people that their circumstances and prospects genuinely matter to policy makers. Of course, youth is not an homogenous category and the widening of inequalities in the experience of transitions to adulthood further frustrates efforts to engender a collective consciousness of youth not simply as a social category but also as a collective actor. Finally, as discussed above, young people are far from unique in their exclusion from effective participation in existing institutions of democratic government. Rather this is a much wider problem affecting many socially marginalised groups including women, ethnic minorities, workers, and the poor. Historically, in Europe effective pressure for the introduction of democratic mechanisms of accountability has mostly come ‘from below’ as a means of controlling socially powerful groups and effecting changes in wider social relations. In recent decades, this radical impetus has been neutralised as the institutionalisation of democratic norms has resulted in the reassertion of control by political elites seeking to push back these gains as part of a wider neo-liberal political project. Radical democracy therefore requires us to find new ways of re-engaging marginalised communities by reconnecting the kinds of informal grassroots activity preferred by young people with the formal mechanisms of representation and government through which state power is exercised.