COP26 has come to an end and left us with an all-too-familiar impression of generational policy in the 21st century. From allegations of intergenerational discrimination to the unsolvable dilemma of democratic representation – this article sheds light on the interdependencies between demographics and democracy, and how institutional innovation may help us to surmount present obstacles.
COP26 has come to an end and left us with an all-too-familiar impression of generational policy in the 21st century. Before entering into the final negotiations, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal of the European Commission Frans Timmermanns almost desperately plead for more collective efforts of his audience by symbolically presenting a picture of his one-year-old grandson: With the calamitous consequences of the present outcomes in mind, he declared that “1.5 degrees is about avoiding a future for our children and grandchildren that is unlivable.”
In this vein, COP26 has once again exposed an issue that has not adequately been addressed so far, and yet requires our utmost attention in current times of upheaval: The inherent shortsightedness of democracy, that is, the difficulty to incorporate the interests of the young and the unborn in the political agenda.
Allegations of intergenerational discrimination
In his book “How Democracy Ends”, published in 2018, Cambridge Professor David Runciman predicts that the collapse of Western democracies in the 21st century will not manifest itself visibly, but much rather occur insidiously – behind the scenes –, as an opaque process in which democratic governance is “hollowed”. One component, he claimed, is the demographic change towards an elderly society.
According to Professor Runciman, in contemporary Western democracies, young people are “triply discriminated against: If you are in your 20s, you are not represented in your parliament, you keep losing elections and you are expected to care about the future, the environment, the unborn – it is your job.” He therefore contends that contemporary political opinion- and will-formation disenfranchised the young in elderly societies as any intergenerational equilibrium between the young and the older generations remained in vain – when only considering quantitative representation. Anna Widegren, Secretary General of the European Youth Forum by the OECD, concluded in 2018 that “very few people actually speak up for young people” since Western democracies have been reluctant to respond to the apparent change in the composition of the electorate.
As for the third notion of discrimination, Professor Runciman claims that the young are not only underrepresented but also confronted with one of the most menacing and complex issues in the history of humankind. The young generation bears the responsibility to combat climate change without being equipped with the necessary quantitative democratic influence to do so. In fact, Runciman postulates that even political alliances of the young – if voter turnout was at 100% – were too powerless within the electorate to exert veritable authority; a phenomenon he delineates as the intergenerational “paradox”: the elderly are in charge of a future they will never witness.
Implications of moral hazard
Indeed, in face of these present demographic changes, democratic governance has increasingly become prone to moral hazard. Not only the agents – the political leaders – but now also a growing part of the population – the principal – may succumb to negligent and irresponsible behaviour because they will not suffer themselves from the future consequences of their political actions – unlike the unborn. As moral hazard has become pertinent amongst the electorate due to demographic changes, the agency problem deteriorates: Quite obviously, the unborn do not vote and yet, present challenges would require exactly that.
Moral hazard is not a matter of distrust towards the elderly, but much rather based on the following observation: While the elderly electorate might be willing to consider its descendants’ interests in its political choices, it is less likely to do so if there are less of them. Precisely herein lie the implications of the demographic change. Many regard current environmental or fiscal policy as proof of this particular challenge; for instance, the overall reluctance to implement necessary pension reforms in Western welfare states.
Yet, does this translate into the failure of the democratic system per se?
Assessing the effects of demographic changes on the state of democracy naturally relies upon how representative democracy itself is defined. The classical definition of the latter notion has its roots in popular sovereignty and employs elections as an instrument to weigh the political will of the electorate, thereby establishing the interest of the majority. Evolutions in the composition of the electorate therefore appear negligible. Indeed, the very ideal of democracy is to represent the totality of society, regardless of how transformations within the electorate shape the political agenda. However shortsighted the political will may be, we ought to accept that democracy represents its population in its entirety as a temporary snapshot.
In his article “Some thoughts on democracy”, our newspaper’s Deputy Director Marco Visentin presents a more profound approach to democracy, asserting that majorities can be defined as a merely “temporary aggregation” of interests. Hence, he arrives at the conclusion that “we should be reluctant to adopt irreversible decisions”. In this light, the perils of irreversible decisions, or perhaps irreversible outcomes, such as in environmental policy, seem shockingly apparent in an elderly democratic society. Thus, how can we avert the dangers of entrenched aggregated interests?
The supposedly unsolvable dilemma
At the heart of this matter lies the controversy that any quantitative adjustments of the electorate would violate core democratic principles: Implementing a maximum voting age, extensively lowering the voting age – Runciman suggests reducing it to the age of six –, or calibrating the weight of votes to generational representation – all these propositions imply radical rectifications in the electorate’s demographic composition that would either entail antidemocratic disenfranchisement or falsified democratic representation.
However, Runciman’s argument clearly neglects the myriad dimensions of democratic participation aside from voting. Given the overall decline in voter turnout in all OECD countries, with the fastest pace amongst youth – a symptom of political distrust, cynicism, and questioning of the effectiveness of democracy – young generations have resorted to non-traditional forms of civic engagement. As Fridays For Future has proved, the latter manifestly enable the discontented young to exercise political leverage. With democratic discourse now coexisting in both the analogous and the digital world, young people have identified new political arenas to articulate their opinions in. In this vein, democracy has become more agile and accessible for the youth. And while voting remains an integral and irreplaceable part of civic engagement, being the most egalitarian way of political deliberation, there are further reasons for hope.
On democratic innovation
In addressing the need for further intergenerational equality, new concepts have been designed to integrate young people’s interest in traditional forms of governance. In 2015, for instance, a beacon project of democratic innovation was launched in Wales, introducing the so-called Ministry of Future Generations. Commissioner Sophie Howe was appointed the first public servant with statutory powers whose duty it is to represent the interest of the unborn citizens of Wales. This unique approach to institutional design established a role that may be capable of regaining a coherent, demographic equilibrium. Subjecting every decision of the Welsh government to close scrutiny, Commissioner Howe exerts veritable powers of democratic control, and not least, strong symbolic authority. As this proves government efforts to advance representation, young people will have greater incentives to vote, thus further balancing the demographic composition of the electorate.
Now, more than ever, our democratic systems need a regenerating spirit, accompanied by institutional innovation and novel government mechanisms that effectively incorporate the young and the unborn in today’s politics. If and only if this is accomplished, democracies will be able to build resilience in face of future challenges. Overcoming the inherent shortsightedness of democracy and avoiding the perils of moral hazard will inevitably rely on the representation of the unborn and their interest in addressing the pressing issues of our time. Yet, if continuously neglected and compromised, this may not be the story of how democracies end, but how catastrophes begin. And, unfortunately, democracy will be held accountable for that.
Cover image by Philipp Foltz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Available at this link.