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Is Protesting as Powerful as Voting? A Look at Youth Participation in Democracy

The right to protest is considered one of the most fundamental parts of functioning democracy.


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Nour Attalla

3 years ago | 6 min read

In March 2019, the People’s Vote march for a second Brexit referendum was one of the largest protests ever in the UK, with over a million participants. In June of the same year, similar numbers took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest a proposed extradition bill with Mainland China. One key characteristic that these protests had in common is that the protesters were overwhelmingly students and young adults.

The right to protest, as a form of freedom of speech, is considered one of the most fundamental parts of functioning democracies.

Still, some of the largest protests in past decades have failed to cause the political change demanded by protesters. After the People’s Vote march in London, the British House of Commons voted against a second Brexit referendum in the UK. Even one of the biggest protests ever, the 2003 Anti-war protests, failed to stop the US-led invasion of Iraq despite an estimated 10 million people protesting around the world.

Young people are often politically engaged more in the form of activism, rather than by participating in formal politics, such as voting in elections.

This raises the question whether protesting is as effective as traditional ways of political participation in representing the interests of young people.

In democracies, the democratic political process is used to create laws and political decisions in general. Enforcement of laws and the use of proper political institutions allow political decisions to be made in a fair way. The legitimacy of a democratic government is based on how well it follows the country’s democratic rules and institutions.

This highlights one crucial characteristic of protesting. Protesting isn’t a formal part of this democratic process. This means that democratic laws do not allow for decisions to be made based on protest chants alone. Rarely is the majority of a country’s population present at any given protest, and it is undemocratic to listen to the voice of a vocal minority. Also, in functioning democracies, there are many formal options for people to express their political opinions, such as by voting or starting a petition for the government.

The power of protests doesn’t lie in directly causing change. It lies in activating people to participate in formal politics. Protests can generate nation-wide awareness for political issues, as media outlets often cover major demonstrations. This allows protesters to send their message to the general population and politicians to drum up support for their cause.

Still, the most important part of this awareness is converting it into participation in formal politics. In democracies, it is insufficient to merely protest when striving to cause social or political change. When not voting, one effectively excludes themselves from taking part in political decision-making. The motivation of individuals to not participate in politics often arises either from a belief that the political process doesn’t listen to them, or that their individual vote isn’t important in the bigger picture. One can compare this voter’s dilemma to paying taxes: If a single person stopped paying taxes, it would hardly affect the system. However, if everyone stopped paying taxes out of a belief their contribution doesn’t matter, the entire system would break down.

This same problem exists for voting. This way of thinking can create a vicious cycle. When people choose not to vote, they are effectively giving more power to those who do choose to vote, which makes it less likely their preferences will be represented. This can make them even more disillusioned with the political process, which results in them voting even less.

Also, in the big picture, whether one chooses to vote does matter. At the 2017 British general election, in 22% of parliamentary seats there were more registered voters who didn’t vote at all than people who voted for the winning candidate. In the end, 31% of the British electorate did not vote.

This shows the drastic impact that increased youth participation could have on election results. The 18–24 age group has the lowest election turnout of any age group in the UK. As young people often have different political views compared to older generations, their (in)action can affect important political outcomes.

For example, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, a much larger proportion of old people voted compared to younger generations. 81% of people aged 65–74 voted in the referendum, but only 48% of those in the 18–24 age bracket voted. This is important because these two demographics held wildly different views regarding the referendum. An estimated 75% of voters aged 18–24 voted Remain, whereas this figure was only 34% for voters aged 65–74. The voice of older people was overrepresented in the Brexit referendum simply because their turnout was higher. This meant that the outcome of the referendum was likely unrepresentative of the preferences of the general population, and particularly of younger generations.

However, after the Brexit referendum results, young voters seemed to wake up and realise their importance in the political process. In the 2017 general election, voters were deciding about who would be in charge of the Brexit process, and what the path of the UK would be. Youth turnout was at its highest in the past 25 years, with young people predominantly voting for the Labour Party. Partly caused by this, the Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority. Protesting played a part in this arousal of the youth, as it created awareness for the importance of political participation, which carried through to Election Day.

This shows the power that young and other disillusioned voters have when they do participate in formal politics. Many established democracies are suffering from low youth turnout at elections. A reason for this is that younger generations are more likely to take democracy for granted, as they have not experienced any different. Low youth turnout does not however suggest that young people are not engaged in politics, as is demonstrated by the massive amounts of young people protesting for change in democracies around the world.

The best way to include young people in politics is by creating youth awareness of the democratic political process’s importance. Protesting is a key part of democracy, as it allows people to engage with issues and exercise their freedom of speech, but alone it isn’t enough. By not voting in elections afterwards, people are undermining all the hard work that is put into raising their voice in demonstrations.

The tides seem to be turning in the UK however. After the youth were noticeably missing at the 2016 Brexit referendum, the past two general elections have shown massive spikes in young voter turnout. Large public campaigns were promoting for young adults to register to vote before the 2019 general elections. These campaigns seem to have done their job, as more than a million young adults registered to vote in the two months leading up to the election.

If this pattern can be continued, the vicious cycle of not voting can be turned into the virtuous cycle of voting. When people vote, their voices are more represented in politics. This causes them to believe more in the power of voting, creating a self-reinforcing positive cycle.

However, despite recent increases, young people still have the lowest election turnout in the UK, which shows that there is still work left to do. The effects of recent pro-voting campaigns show that young people are politically engaged, but further awareness is needed about how voting is the ultimate decider in democracies, not protesting.

Ultimately, increasing youth participation in formal politics strengthens the democratic system, as it increases its representativeness of national politics. By making politics more inclusive of all members of society, a strong belief in the power of democracy can be maintained for future generations.

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Nour Attalla


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