Democracy? Meh…: Australian Youth, Apathy, and the Arab Spring

The following headline caught my eye on Twitter yesterday: Why Do Australians Hate Democracy?

I clicked through: who could resist a teaser like that? It was a Crikey article by Rob Burgess:

The latest Lowy Institute poll contains an alarming statistic for lovers of democracy. Only 39% of young Australians (18 to 29) chose the following statement from a list of three as best representing their opinion: “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.”

The score is higher in older Australians, with 60% of Australians as a whole supporting democracy.

The rest of the article didn’t really go in the direction I expected, instead devolving into an extended criticism of the party system in place at the moment, and especially of Labour.

Nevertheless I found the Lowy Institute results intriguing.

According to Latinobarómetro (2010) the average support for democracy across the Latin American region is 51% (responding yes to the question “is democracy preferable to any other kind of government?”). This obviously isn’t ideal, but given the challenges faced by rickety democracies in the region it’s probably not surprising. And note that its not really that much lower than in Australia.

The difference is that, unlike in Australia, approval ratings across the age groups are fairly constant (there is, however, a trend towards greater approval as higher levels of education are attained).

So why are Australian youth so much more apathetic relative to their seniors? Burgess’ argument didn’t really convince me: I’m not sure there’s any reason youth should be more disgusted than older Australians at the lack of real participation in the Australian party system.

Is it apathy brought on by privilege? Substandard civic education? (Are they not teaching Orwell in schools these days?) Does it reflect an inability to empathize with the struggles of democracy activists and people living under dictatorial regimes worldwide? Or is this kind of decline in active support for democracy natural as countries settle into boring stability and politicians amuse themselves with power plays and grandstanding?

In Latin America memories of military dictatorship and massive human rights abuse by the state are fresh across all generations; maybe this explains a fairly constant support for democracy across age groups. Older voters in Australia remember the Cold War. They remember Tiananmen, and Soviet excesses. The excessive zeal with which the West carried out its “Democracy, Yay!” campaign can be criticised extensively, but rallying behind our system of government left its mark.

Democracy needs to be continually reinvented and reinvigorated: looks like Australia might be due for a (peaceful) shake-up. It will be interesting to see how watching the unfolding events in the Middle East shape Australian youth attitudes: will seeing a region (hopefully) embrace a (healthy?) democracy, categorically rejecting a return to authoritarianism, be my generation’s defining moment?


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