Every month since December 2022, we at Youth Talks publish a four-article series about a key socio-political topic, intending to trigger discussions with our readers. This month, we explore the topic of democracy, its development, and the model of governance it entails. As usual, we will focus on young people and their takes on the topic.
Events such as the elections of extremist right-wing parties in Europe or the war in Ukraine inevitably make us wonder if there are any reasons to be optimistic about the development and construction of democratic spaces. At the same time, this model of governance seems to be more effective than others to maintain international peace and defend the interests of a nation’s population.
If you are lost in elections like us, here is an overview of democratic principles, the state of democracy today, and its global prospects.
📚 What is democracy?
The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, the people, and “Kratos” which means power. In short, it’s the “power of the people”, a model of governance that relies on the people’s will. It’s different from autocracy or dictatorship where one person rules, and it’s not oligarchy where a privileged class rules.
There are many different models of democratic government, such as presidential (e.g. France) and parliamentary (e.g. the United Kingdom) democracies, with federal (e.g. the United States) or centralized systems (e.g. Canada). Moreover, voting systems can vary as there are proportional voting systems and majoritarian ones, and so on.
However, all democracies are ruled by representatives of the people and are based on the principles of equality where one person equals one vote. Thanks to those mechanisms, they are built around a social contract.
What is a social contract?
The main idea of a social contract is that in exchange for their trust to be governed, citizens obtain certain core public goods provided by their representatives. For example in some countries, citizens trust their government with managing the taxes they pay to get universal healthcare. The same goes for public schools, the maintenance of transport infrastructures, the legal system, the distribution of energy, the army, etc.
How do we know a democratic system is working well?
To check their heartbeat, the Global state of democracy initiative reviews the following elements:
- Representative government means clean elections, inclusive suffrage, free political parties, and elected government.
- Fundamental rights mean access to justice, civil liberties, social rights, and equality.
- Checks on government meaning media integrity, judicial independence, and effective parliament.
- Impartial administration means the predictable enforcement of laws and the absence of corruption.
- Participatory engagement means local democracy, direct democracy, electoral participation, and civil society participation.
🧐 Are democratic systems on the rise or on the fall?
According to The Global State of Democracy 2021 report, more democracies were deteriorating than democracies emerging between 2016 and 2021. On one hand, deteriorating democracies have pro-democratic laws and institutions but do not offer equal access to them, for example by excluding immigrants from their voting systems. On the other hand, Myanmar and Tunisia are not democracies anymore.
Any good news?
Yes. That report was published in 2021, but multiple experts said that 2022 witnessed movements going against that trend. To put it in the words of journalist Janan Ganesh, “2022 was the year liberal democracy fought back”. The president of the pro-democratic think tank Freedom House, Michael Abramowitz, also declared that “the story of the last year has been, if hopeful isn’t the right word, at least more mixed”.
Tell me more.
- The Brazilian democracy was backsliding because its former president Jair Bolsonaro declared he would reject vote results if he didn’t get re-elected, but he ended up leading a peaceful transition to hand over power to Lula after he was defeated by him.
- A massive pro-democratic popular uprising is undergoing in Iran to defend women’s rights, making it the longest civil rights movement in the country since 1979.
- Even the Chinese government agreed to soften its strict zero-COVID policies, a response to its people taking up the streets to ask for more freedom.
- In the US, Donald Trump’s claims to contest the 2021 presidential election results seem to have isolated him.
- In Sri Lanka, protesters took to the streets to demand accountability for the government’s debt default and eventually forced the president’s flight and resignation.
In short, we live in a continuously evolving world and it’s up to you to see if the glass is half full or half empty. However, the number of protests around the world more than doubled between 2017 and 2022, sparked by a wide range of issues, demonstrating that most people are willing to fight for their rights.
🏋️♂️ How can existing democracies improve?
As discussed in our activism series, there is indeed a general feeling of discontent among citizens of democratic countries. To answer this issue, the Global state of democracy initiative suggests elected governments update their social contracts to align them with contemporary topics and “prioritize equal access to the mechanisms of participation”.
For example, governments could expand their budget to better protect the people against climate change, adapt the transport infrastructure and workers’ laws to remote work, open voting rights to younger people, etc.
How can they get there?
To do that, the think tank recommends seven policies:
- New constitutions, for instance, updated voting systems,
- Electoral integrity guarantees such as mid-term confidence votes,
- Spaces for meaningful youth participation,
- Stronger and updated protection of freedom of expression,
- Civic education which could take place in the form of mandatory civic services,
- Regional input integrated into national and local laws and policies,
- Participatory mechanisms that channel public demands into new laws and policies, like citizens’ assemblies.
Where can I start?
Even though you don’t feel well represented by any party, voting remains the most effective way to make your voice heard. If that’s not enough of a response, you can check our activism 101 article. And stay tuned, our next piece on democracy will tell the stories of young people building democratic spaces in their countries.
🧠 Food for thought
There are more and more citizen assemblies in Europe. These participatory mechanisms consist of a group of volunteer citizens solicited by the government to design policies on a specific topic. Typically, the set of policies they come up with is then introduced to a voting body like the Senate and the Parliament which passes them to turn them into laws, or not.
Whereas skeptics worry that 1) ordinary citizens do not have the expertise required to address complex political situations and 2) this model of co-governance is not sustainable, evidence suggests the opposite, especially when the deliberative process is well designed.
What do you think: would you like to participate in one, and if so, what would it look like and what topic would you be interested in discussing?
📢 We need you
Why do we need to hear from you?
- From October, 14th to April 30th, young people (15-29yo) worldwide are invited to take part in Youth Talks, a massive collective intelligence consultation.
- The Higher Education for Good Foundation, which is launching this initiative, is expecting tens of thousands of respondents, hopefully including you!
Why should you participate?
- The results of the consultation will help the Foundation imagine new higher education models to grow future generations into empowered individuals able to overcome the challenges of their times.
- Thanks to an online platform and offline activities, you can share your ideas, concerns, dreams, and expectations for the future.
Any other reason?
- Plenty! First, we believe that asking yourself such questions will help you better understand who you are and what you want for the future.
- Second, participating in the consultation means your answers will co-construct the educational policies of tomorrow: they will nourish a white paper that will be read by the OECD, the European Commission, and other major youth organizations.
- Third, thanks to the online open data platform we will publish thanks to your answers, it’s the occasion to show the rest of the world what young people want.
- Finally, it helps plant trees as for every 10 people responding to Youth Talks, we will finance the planting of 1 tree to help restore forests, create habitat for biodiversity, and make a positive social impact around the world.