October 8, 2012, by Stuart Fox

Is globalisation a threat to democratic legitimacy?

One of the biggest challenges globalisation brings to Western democracy is the threat it poses to the future legitimacy of Western governments, as a result of its role in undermining the relevance of the processes and institutions of electoral politics.

Evidence from the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement series of polls shows that this response is particularly strong amongst the young. In 2003, 2006 and 2009, the Audit asked which institutions respondents felt had the most influence over daily life.  Taking these three surveys together, an average of 47% of 16–24 year old’s said that business was one of the most influential institutions, and 63% said the media. Only 13% mentioned the UK Parliament.  But of those over-65, the figures were just 29% who said business, 47% the media, and 32% the UK Parliament.

This awareness leads to young voters being more likely to turn away from institutions which focus on the control and policy of the national government, particularly elections and political parties. Throughout the 9 years covered by the Audit series (2003–2011), the average proportion of 16–24 year old’s who said they would definitely vote was 27%, compared with 58.3% of over 25s. The average proportion of 16–24 year olds who had at least some interest in politics was 37.6%, compared to 52.5% of over 25s. And the average proportion of under 25s who had donated money or paid a membership fee to a political party within the last year was 2.7%, compared with 5.3% of over 25s.

It is clear that the youngest cohort is disengaging from electoral politics to a much greater extent than their elders, and it appears that at least part of this disengagement is driven by the realisation that the national government is not the most influential institution in their lives. There is evidence, therefore, that the real threat of globalisation to democratic legitimacy may be realised in thirty years when today’s young people come to dominate the electorate. Ultimately the question of whether or not this threat will materialise will be answered by the capacity of the key institutions of electoral politics – particularly the political parties’ – to engage future citizens with the democratic process.

Stuart Fox is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham’s ESRC Doctoral Training Centre. His research focuses on young people’s engagement with formal politics in the UK.

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