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28 Juni

USA: How can young people be inspired for democracy?

New study by Matthew MacWilliams on the state of "Democracy in America": A worryingly small number of young people stand firmly behind their democracy – in contrast, an encouraging number of 18-39 year-olds want to be involved in their neighborhoods more

USA: How can young people be inspired for democracy?

New study by Matthew MacWilliams on the state of "Democracy in America": A worryingly small number of young people stand firmly behind their democracy – in contrast, an encouraging number of 18-39 year-olds want to be involved in their neighborhoods and they espouse values such as freedom, community and equality before the law. With the support of the German Marshall Fund 2022, the Freudenberg Foundation has initiated a study to investigate how young people in the USA feel about their democracy and how they could become more involved in promoting cohesion in their country.
Foto: Matthew MacWilliams
The Freudenberg Foundation's involvement in the USA arose from the wishes of a number of family shareholders of the Freudenberg Group, 15% of whom live in the USA. Given the troubling state of democracy in their country, they encouraged the Foundation to be involved there according to its expertise profile, with a clear focus and in a well-defined region.

The question of young people's attitudes toward democracy has become a gap in our knowledge and a focus of our research, which we will first examine with a focus on representative communities in the "swing state" of Wisconsin. Based on the results, recommendations for action in terms of quality criteria in contemporary approaches to democracy education are to be drawn from the study. The goal is to promote an evidence-based approach. At the same time, the Freudenberg Foundation and the German Marshall Fund are jointly facilitating learning activities through the transatlantic support group in order to contribute to more reflective practice from the analysis of differences and commonalities in the USA and Germany or Europe.

The research uses quantitative and qualitative methods to examine 1) what proportion of the U.S. population are consistent supporters of democracy, 2) whether younger people tend to be less supportive of democracy, 3) why this is (not) the case, and 4) what strategies can be used to strengthen support for democracy. The (in)consistency of study participants' support for democracy was measured by five multiple-choice questions that asked them to evaluate different political systems, e.g., a "strong leader," military government, or democracy. A person is only considered a consistent supporter of democracy if they provide five answers that are consistent with democracy, including support for the importance of elections or parliament. The moderately inconsistent segment can be determined by the fact that two to four of the questions had answers that were consistent with democracy. To date, one U.S.-wide quantitative survey has been analyzed with a survey sample of young people ages 18-29 and four online focus groups with inconsistent supporters of democracy in Wisconsin, separated by white and black populations and gender.

Quantitative results (national survey)

The quantitative national online survey found that only 41% of all U.S. citizens are consistent supporters of democracy, and a total of 59%, in varying degrees, can be classified as inconsistent supporters of democracy. There are striking differences in the age distribution. The younger the respondent, the more inconsistent their support for democracy becomes. This showed that not only does the youngest age segment (18-29 years) have low consistent support for democracy (26%), but a similar finding emerges for the following age group between 30-39 years (24%). It is worth noting that the young people of the coming generations are not expected to develop a stronger awareness of democracy, meaning that increasingly large segments of the U.S. population may not stand firmly behind democracy in the future.

Qualitative results (focus groups)

Following the quantitative survey, the focus groups were conducted online exclusively with (mildly and moderately, not completely) inconsistent supporters of democracy between the ages of 18-29. This target group is the focus of the project and comprises a total of 58% of this age segment. The focus groups are representative in terms of various demographic characteristics and political positioning.

The focus groups centered on the question of why young people are inconsistent in their support for democracy. It became clear that they associate democracy only with government policy and, in particular, with elections, which they perceive as farcical, corrupt and untrustworthy. They do not feel as though their voices are heard or that politics represents their interests but, on the contrary, is hostile to them and "undemocratic" in itself. This perspective was particularly strong among black men. Overall, there were large differences in the perceptions of the white and black populations, highlighting the need for differentiated approaches in the promotion of democracy.

While the young inconsistent supporters of democracy think little of the political system, which constitutes the framework of democracy with its laws and institutions, they identify very strongly with the value of "freedom" across all groups. They also consider community to be just as important as freedom, as an emotionally charged value and as a space of reference in which they feel they are heard and can make a difference.

Likewise, the evaluation showed that many, if not all, of the participants were open to a new view of democracy and very open to ideas such as civic engagement, exchange instead of polarization, and the acceptance and resolution of differences of opinion. "It is a very eye-opening experience to sit back, and really dive into what we all believe is democracy and how different people in different parts of the country view it," commented one of them about the experience in the focus group.

Approaches to the promotion of democracy based on the results of the research

Based on the results of the research, the focus is now shifting to the development of a practical project that creates engagement opportunities for young people in their immediate social environment that are simultaneously linked to the promotion and protection of freedom. The aim is to convey the interdependence of civil society commitment, freedom and democracy.

Moreover, appropriate communication strategies could teach young people that citizenship and participation go far beyond elections, and that freedom also inextricably entails responsibility to other citizens, communities, and the state.

Last but not least, it is about building a network of key individuals within and across communities who can "make a difference" and revitalize America's democracy, in addition to fostering political and history education that enables honest and accurate discussions of U.S. history - from the beginning of slavery to the storming of the Capitol in 2021.

You can find the final report here.
An article by Matthew MacWilliams himself on the study with the title "Is democracy destroying itself?" can be found here.