Why are (young) citizens fed up with the promise of democracy?

epa03876696 The giant teddy 'Public Friend' is set at the Charles de Gaulle roundabout in central Warsaw, Poland, 21 September 2013. Polish designer Iza Rutkowska created 'the cuddly', a massive teddy bear, which passersby are invited to interact with by climbing on him or hugging him. The stuffed animal is aimed to give residents a sense of the existence of a 'public friend'. EPA/JAKUB KAMINSKI POLAND OUT

Findings of research on young people in Croatia show a decreasing acceptance for constitutional values, no trust in social institutions and a loss of interest for politics, leading to inadequate political socialization of young citizens and their low democratic potential. An additional cause for alarm in this respect is the latest refusal to introduce mandatory civic education, contributing further to the systematic production of followers instead of active citizens.

“The civic engagement of young people today and in the future is one of the guarantees of the resilience and development of a democratic order”, reminds Vlasta Ilišin of the Institute for Social Research in Zagreb, warning that, based on data gathered in youth research in the last fifteen years, “young people display a lack of understanding of political pluralism, democratic values and processes. At the same time, with the widespread acceptance of authoritarian tendencies, the democratic deficit among young people deepens and the level of young party members’ democratic competencies remains relatively low”.

However, although everyone loves to blame the economic crisis (and it seems like it has been around forever), the crisis is certainly not the only one to blame for this development; the question remains: what has the Croatian society done in the last quarter century of living in a democracy and multiparty system? According to a 2013 research, the support for democracy and pluralism has fallen below 50 percent for the first time, marking “the beginning of erosion of general support for a democratic system of governance, which is worrisome when we take into account that the generations included in the 2013 research were socialized in a plural and democratic society”, reminds Ilišin. Therefore, one of the key questions remains the one asked recently at a scientific conference titled “The democratic potential of Croatian youth”, organized in late October by the Institute for Social Research and the Democracy and Law Centre Miko Tripalo: “Why are citizens fed up with the promise of democracy?”


Party membership and political ties more important than knowledge or honesty

However, the worrying data does not end there. Young people have less and less faith in social and political institutions, leading to the Government, the Parliament and political parties being at the very bottom of the trust in institutions scale, with the parties firmly last with only 5 percent trust among young people. Even so, as much as 11 percent of young people are members of a political party – out of that number, 27 percent have no interest in politics whatsoever and 21 percent cite personal needs and interests as their motivation for party membership. Even though young people are perceive parties as being clientelistic organizations and strongly oppose corruption, “they draw no connections whatsoever between clientelism and corruptive behavior”, warns Ilišin of just some of the paradoxes of today’s youth and their democratic potential.

Young people express the greatest trust towards the military, religious institutions, the President of the State and the police, if only with a plurality of one-third of the sample. Considering all research conducted since 1999, especially worrying is the fact that, out of all the factors important for success, the perceived importance of political ties is on the rise and the perception of honesty, knowledge and diligent work as factors contributing to success is falling. Also on the decline is the acceptance of constitutional values, such as respect for human rights and freedom, equality, social justice and gender equality.

On the other hand, warns Emina Bužinkić of the Centre for Peace Studies, “wouldn’t it be unusual for the trust in institutions to be high, considering the nature of those institutions? It would be worth examining how the current situation came to be, what the possible alternatives are and what sort of changes we want”.

However, Croatian youth is no exception; research abroad also consistently shows young people to be disillusioned with politics and politicians and alienated form political processes, as evidenced by the international research project MYPLACE – Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement. Even though a critical attitude towards politicians can be considered to be good for democracy, at the same time, a certain level of trust in institutions is necessary for a democratic system to function.


Why do young people “get” that they need civic education, yet the state does not get it?

Youth should be included more in decision-making processes, but young people themselves are aware that they should acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills in order to become truly capable of taking on the roles of citizens. In other words, the introduction of civic education in schools is a necessity. However, in the words of Vedrana Spajić Vrkaš from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, attempts to systematically introduce civic education in Croatia have been a complete debacle and are only kept alive by civil society organizations, while the educational system continues producing followers instead of independent citizens.

“Although the Government supports civic education nominally, the educational system is still firmly based on an authoritarian model that extols love for the homeland as desirable patriotism and denigrates critical thinking to one of the lowest-ranking features of education”, reminded Spajić Vrkaš, referring to all the meanderings of the introduction of civic education.

“Croatia is lagging behind Europe when it comes to civic education and the new curriculum of civic education, being prepared according to the vision of Minister Vedran Mornar, makes no sense and is non-functional”, warned Berto Šalaj of the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, going on to compare the program devised by Mornar and the one developed by experts and concluding that “the distrust of democracy as a principle is a major problem that leads to follower mentality and low probability of participation in public affairs”.

“There is a deficit of political culture in education – schools are ideologized and curricula are just as full of nationalism as they used to be full of Marxism”, warned Branislava Baranović of the Institute for Social Research. Dražen Lalić of the Faculty of Political Science referred to extreme statements and outbursts of football supporters’ violence, concluding that “it is not so much a political issue and expression of extreme-right sentiment as it is a symbolic expression of a subculture and a statement of distrust in the system”. Benjamin Perasović of the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar considers the events in football stadiums to be subcultural issues, with “football fans resisting modern-day football which is heavily infused with business influence”.


Who cares about history?

On the other hand, seeing young people’s relationship with history is no less interesting, leading to Marko Mustapić of the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar and Nebojša Blanuša of the Faculty of Political Science to study the culture of memory. Their findings show that young people are “well…interested in history…sort of, but not really”, even though the Second World War represents a trans-generational trauma “as a result of socialization processes in which a generation that has established a common feeling of collective tragedy transfers emotionally saturated narratives onto the next generations, with these in turn serving as identifiers and perceptual filters in political judging and making decisions. Such interpretations include a ‘memory’ of the forebears’ suffering and an assumption of collective culpability of those being defined as the cause of the suffering and, hence, enemies”.

“The results of researches conducted from 2000 to 2012 show that, with the passage of time, the number of those identifying with the biographies of belligerents from past conflicts decreases and an increasing number of people interpret their families’ place as being removed from the conflict, suggesting a suppression of the past. However, those who do maintain ties with the political heritage of their forebears are still opposed to each other on a number of indicators of political attitudes (left-right self-identification, perception of major political parties, perception of recent history, political values etc.) similarly to the rest of the population, making them susceptible to evocations of ‘spectres of the past’ on the part of unresourceful political elites”, cautioned Blanuša.


Activism vs. slacktivism

Throughout all of these processes, social trust plays a major role in the maintenance of democracy, since it enables the existence of free public communication, including a free expression of attitudes and opinions; the social trust in question exists at three levels – individual, social and institutional. Of course, it should not be forgotten that young people, just as everyone else, are influenced by their own lived experiences and the knowledge and values acquired through them. This issue was raised by a research on the biographical effects of participation in students’ protests against the commercialization of education, conducted with those students who had participated in the blockade of the Faculty of Humanities and social Sciences in Rijeka.

“For them, the blockade was a period of learning, of ‘destabilizing’ and ‘demystifying’ power relations and crafting new friendships. All involved have described the period as being ‘transformative’”, stated Karin Doolan form the University in Zadar, adding that “such an engagement illustrates the concept of ‘activist citizenship’ that appeals to social justice and interferes with the established order and practices”.

In activism today, and youth activism especially, social networks play an important role, but also hide many traps. Although the Internet and “virtual democracy” have become very appealing, it is common for one thing to take place in a virtual community and something completely different to happen in the real social space. Dunja Potočnik of the Institute for Social Research warns of this in an analysis “based on a critical approach that defines ‘slacktivism’ as an ‘impersonation of social and political action in the physical space that serves to conceal the low level of youth political activism’. The concept of slacktivism implies a weak link between online engagement and real social effects and change in values, thereby lulling its participants into a false sense of social engagement and empowerment”.


Media of the future

“New technologies and new media platforms are opening up valuable potentials of social dialogue and citizens’ political participation, evident in increasing expectations from the third media sector, which is neither public nor commercial. The third media sector is made up of so-called community media, non-profit media defined by the European Parliament as ‘those media that are accountable to the communities they serve and open to their members who wish to participate, manage and co-create the program’”. The importance of not-for-profit media or community media lies in the fact that they “provide a voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have one in mainstream media, meaning those who believe that the public and commercial media do not adequately represent their interests, or the interests of their group or community”, stated Nada Zgrabljić Rotar of the Centre for Croatian Studies.

However, it is worth saying something that is too often forgotten (deliberately or otherwise): that, just like civic education, non-profit media cannot be a magic cure-all to every problem. It should be established, although it seems self-understandable, what the actual role of media in the society is, which would in turn require a media policy we still do not have. Current attempts at “help” by the Ministry of Culture, laudable and worthy of support as they are still require broad discussion and numerous improvements.

Taking into account what we have (not) seen so far, and especially since we are entering the last year of this Government’s term, it is hard to expect significant changes in the upcoming period, even less so if a change in power takes place. Not-for-profit media in particular need systematic, long-term support that shouldn’t rely solely on state donations, making it necessary to consider alternative models of ownership and management that will include journalists and citizens with the goal of making community journalism not only not-for-profit, but also truly independent.