We, the people

Young people everywhere tend to reject institutional politics: traditional mobilization, in the form of voting or party membership is increasingly unpopular and questions the meaning of representative democracy [Wattenberg 2008]. 8 out of 10 Europeans under 30 state to have participated in an election in the last three years [Flash Eurobarometer], but we know that as long as voting continues to be well looked upon socially, surveys overestimate participation. Only 5 percent are activating in a political party or organization. By comparison, three times more are involved with an organization promoting human rights or local/global community development.

What is alarming for scholars and democracy advocates is that participation is no longer a natural result of stepping into adulthood, of taking up responsibilities, paying taxes etc, as it used to be. This means that if youth are indeed politically inactive today, they will most probably continue to be so when they get older [Plutzer 2002; Fieldhouse et al. 2007]. The question is: to what extent they are disengaged? Or rather they are engaged differently?

What we see nowadays points to the latter, and by no means do youth appear apathetic. In their search for freedom and dignity, young Arabs took democracy in the streets, overcame oppression and became an inspiration for the rest of the world. Europeans as well have voiced their frustration and disappointment with the current political system, lack of work prospects and economic security. The newest social movements, Los Indignados or the global Occupy protests display innovative forms of (extra-parliamentary) participatory behavior – blockades and occupations – and a diverse repertoire which comprises rallies, demonstrations, camping, petition signing, pamphleteering or music. If these are not all new in the history of collective action, a sure novelty is brought by how technology is employed.

Channels of participation have extended towards the online environment, and with that the fluidity of information has increased, as well as mobilization speed and the power of networks. Today we speak of net activism, “going viral”, speak-to-tweet service and other such tools to mobilize young people and help create change, albeit democratically. One idea behind “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook revolutions” is that it’s possible to join a protest instantaneously, irrespective of physical location. Individuals of all ages are now able to participate both as consumers and creators of political messages, and enact change through a complex interplay between physicality and digitality.

It is unclear, however, the extent to which these radical movements, often spontaneous, decentralized or lacking coherent demands can result in stable political change. In the words of D. Rushkoff, the real occupation takes place in terms of value change. Participation becomes global in nature and is organized around the “we”: common goals, connectedness, shared spokesmanship and brotherhood.

Digitalization also changes what to expect from and how to communicate with institutions. The idea behind new governance systems is that they are or will be internet-enabled. When it comes to traditional participation, Switzerland and Estonia have successfully implemented internet voting systems for years now and unsurprisingly, one in three e-voters is under 35 [Estonian National Electoral Committee]. Principles such as open collaboration and information transparency are at the core of new ideas to bridge citizens and institutions with online help: open data and open source government movements promote interaction and participation of lots of people rather than central planning. In the former case, The UK, Italy and France already have set up infrastructures, while the European Commission is heading the same direction through its Open Data Strategy for Europe.

With greater space for movement comes greater freedom, but this freedom is volatile. Online environments as data storage spaces could not only make it possible for citizens to hold governments accountable, but reversely, they could be used by other entities as well to monitor citizens’ activity. According to observers, an increased web surveillance may alter democracy as we know it today; policies to reduce internet freedom or enable action against websites on the basis of their content (such as SOPA) have generated dissent, as are perceived by some to infringe on democratic principles (see the Chokepoint Project as example). This is but another facet of how politics become radicalized nowadays and how democracy is reinvented.

Finally, while breaking with current political systems, mechanisms of participation and policy-making dynamics are changing, and so are the social roles. Echoing what Almond and Powell were saying decades ago, to look into how youth become politically socialized means to shed light on the deep transformations in nations’ (today global) political culture [1978: 76]. What motivates young people to participate today? How do we make use of new engagement models and what do we expect to derive out of them?

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We thank John F. Moore, Marco Piva, T_indignadx, Chris Pinchen and the community for making valuable points on the nature of participation and helping with the design of this campaign!

Selected academic references