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The Streets are calling! Transforming institutions to address long-term challenges to democracy.

  • January 13, 2020

Several protest waves hit the roads, streets and public squares in Europe and beyond in the last years, form the Spanish 15M Movement to the events in Hong Kong, the riots of Ferguson, the movement of the Gilets Jaunes in France or the youth-lead Fridays for Future, to mention just a few cases. As diverse as these movements’ claims are, they all express a big sense of urgency. 

The recurrent image of crowds shouting at the institutions that the people had enough seem to signify that a reformist approach has been abandoned for a more disruptive one. Some even claim that we live a rebirth of History based on the increase of riots and uprisings. So, to what extent are the current democratic systems able to provide answers to these challenges?

Our multilevel structures of governance come with no shortage of mechanisms to coopt and pacify social unrest; also, to repress it. The system has proved able to absorb these events to the extent one could argue it nullifies their disruptive effect. It is certainly unclear whether this is a trade-off for a structured path towards social advancement or if it jeopardizes the chances of future generations by defending stability at all costs.

Some current forms of contentious politics seem to express a lack of faith in the transformative power of the system and turn to anger, ferocity and violence. Not surprisingly, the apparent lack of responses is pushing the electorates towards increasingly populistic solutions offered by both the left and the right corners of the political spectrum. One could wonder whether people have given up on institutions and if so, how reversible such development is. 

Like many other expressions of social and political life, political contestation follows new forms of sociality based on the individualization of behaviours and the atomization of the participant groups. In that regard, the new Internet technologies, acting as organizational and mobilization tools, facilitate new forms of collective action. While attractive for the whole population, they especially resonate within the minds of the youth. 

Can our decision-making structures change so as to foster the political representation and participation of young people and their interests? Three possible pathways are identified in order to organize our political systems in a less elitist way; to enhance the sustainability of the political system; and to ultimately restore people’s faith in institutions. 

The first turn, implying the development of deliberative forms of democracy, is the most put in practice and offers the highest guarantees on increasing sustainability. People are put in the centre of policy-making, ensuring all voices are heard and taken into account.

Secondly, reforming parliamentary systems to two-chamber parliaments with one chamber of young representatives gives young people formal power over the decisions taken. Enhancing young people’s formal right to participation helps to address their specific needs and can, therefore, restore their faith in the political system.

Lastly, a more controversial option argues for a change in the voting system, discounting the vote of people older than a certain age. The idea behind this democratic innovation is that older people should say less about decisions that could drastically change the future, simply because they will likely not be around for the consequences of that change. Polls even show that there is a climate generation gap, with people over 55 worrying significantly less about global warming. Discounting their votes can, therefore, improve the representation of young people’s interests and concerns.

However, we can learn from the challenges of participation of some marginalized racial and ethnic minority groups, that political participation is in fact not enough. In order for (marginalized) ethnic minorities and youth to fully participate in politics, a shift is necessary from a window-dressing approach towards ‘effective’ participation. Political participation should go beyond the mere presence of minority groups in formal political settings. To be ‘effective’ political participation should also include their voice and influence.

Similarly, although equality for women is one of the main goals that most democratic governments aim at achieving, none have so far succeeded. At the beginning of 2018, only one of the top five countries in terms of the presence of women in the legislature is a democracy. Why is this so? A reason is found in the way contemporary institutional structures are designed. As women’s political mobilization only started after political institutions were set up, they did not take into account women’s specific needs and voices. As a consequence, they are currently unable to accommodate differences between women and men. In order for women to be politically equal, both political structure and culture should be importantly reformed.

The main challenges for the future stability of democracy reflect the plural idiosyncrasy of modern society. The streets are calling and it is not clear whether this time our institutions will be able to just evade the claim.   

* This piece reflects on the roundtable discussions that took place during the EDGE Research Day ‘Long-term Challenges to Democracy’, held on 18 October 2019.



Michel Huysseune
Wed, 15/01/2020 - 13:54
I agree with the diagnosis, but I am perplexed about the solutions you propose concerning the transformation of institutions. They are too much determined by a contrast young-old that I find problematic for various reasons. Perhaps it's because I'm myself over 55 that I find the idea of limiting the voting weight of older people profoundly disquieting. I don't doubt the good intentions of those who propose it, but I have noticed for some time that there is a societal tendency to consider aging people (and that starts really already from 40) as insufficiently productive, and paying pensions as a burden. I also notice that many proposals for activating older people are profoundly irrealistic (and in fact the entrepreneurial organizations who campaign most fervently for them are the last ones to implement them). The whole discussion of raising the age of pensions is a perfect example, as an ex-president of a social economy organization I know that for many categories of manual labour this is profoundly irrealistic (or is "realistic" in the sense that it will lead to a faster deterioration of the health condition of the people involved, and hence "saving" on pensions paid). Demeaning the voice of older people (and this proposal does this) will make it easier to formulate such proposals, because one cannot expect younger people to automatically acquire such social insights. More in general, such a proposal blames older people for an attitude (limited long-term responsibility) that is in fact a logical product of our political system. Representative democracies have as an in-built problem that elections (and as a consequence the politicians who are elected) tend to focus on emotions and on short-term narrow sectional interests. The media system as it exists only reinforces this tendency. How to correct these in-built systemic vices is, I admit, a real conundrum. Contentious politics are for sure the beginning and an absolute necessity (and therefore I do admire very much all the young people who mobilize for climate), but to translate them into workable institutional solutions remains indeed an open question.
Ferran Davesa
Tue, 23/06/2020 - 10:55
Thanks for the feedback, Michel. I agree that stigmatising the adults or the old people is for sure not the way to go, and should not be a necessary cost for empowering youth. I think it is important that institutions open to youth in a way that is not detrimental to the notion of adulthood. But from my perspective to a certain extent it is inevitable that adults give up a certain portion of the cake upon institutional reform. I also believe that the media, as you point out, has a crucial role in building a narrative based on intergenerational cooperation rather than confrontation.
Jana Gheuens
Tue, 30/06/2020 - 10:32
Thanks for the discussion Michel and Ferran! I also agree that the stigmatisation of older people needs to be avoided and that intergenerational cooperation would be more beneficial.The first suggestion we made on deliberative democracy could prove helpful in that regard. Perhaps it is also worth pointing out that precisely the difference in preferences makes it vital that young people are adequately represented, whereas there is currently often an overrepresentation of middle-aged to senior men. Discounting the votes of older people is one way, albeit a controversial one, to do so. While including young people is not a guaranteed quick fix for myopia, due to difference in preferences it could already be a step in the right direction. For instance, in our blog we referred to a poll showing the difference in climate change preferences between young and old people.

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Serena D'Agostino
EDGE Coordinator Postdoctoral Researcher in Migration, Diversity & Justice
Ferran Davesa
Postdoctoral Researcher in European Democracy & Governance
Jana Gheuens
EDGE PhD Researcher in International Environmental Governance