Citizenship and democracy

Ella Rhodes reports from a symposium at the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

We live in extraordinary times – across the world authoritarian regimes are reducing the rights and freedoms of citizens, belief in democracy is crumbling and well-established democracies themselves are slowly shifting towards populist and authoritarian ideals. The causes for this are myriad, but a group of researchers is attempting to unravel whether young adults feelings towards citizenship may play any part in this apparent surge in embracing authoritarian regimes. 

Professor Kerry Kennedy (The Education University of Hong Kong) opened the symposium asking whether the authoritarianism of today is the same to that of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy of the past. Are authoritarian regimes in Asia, such as China’s government, similar to those in Europe such as in Hungary? He pointed to a Freedom House report on democracy which outlined some of the drivers behind the rise in authoritarian regimes and focused particularly on low trust in the media, state control of the media and that all-too-common phrase used to quash bad news stories by many regimes – 'fake news'. 

Researchers from six European countries came together to study more than 2,000 young adults, mainly students aged 18 to 30, and three of those researchers came to share their country-specific findings at the ECP. Dr Beata Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz (University of Warmia, Poland) explained that participants were asked about their citizenship activity, including aspects such as voting and protesting, categorising them as passive, semi-active or active citizens, and their views on democracy, including perceptions of media independence, freedom of speech and election honesty. 

Associate Professor László Kinyó (University of Szeged, Hungary) compared the differences between countries in young people’s attitudes to the state of elements of democracy in the past two years. Out of all the countries studied, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, Hungarian attitudes were worst. Kinyó said young people in Hungary perceived democracy to have declined most in the past two years, followed by Poland and Estonia. Lithuania had the best attitudes towards democracy of all six countries. 

When broken into sub scales most of those studied felt most positively about repression, or the lack thereof in their countries. Ukrainians felt positively towards freedom while the five other countries had a worse perception of freedom in their respective countries. Perceptions of media independence were low, Ukrainians aside, and honesty in elections was again viewed most favourably by Ukrainians and Polish people while Hungarians and Latvians felt the freedom of elections was in decline. 

University of Tartu (Estonia) researcher Dr Kristi Kõiv examined citizenship activity across participants from all six countries. In general people from all countries were most likely to be involved in semi-active and personal citizenship behaviour.

Looking at this in more depth with a cluster analysis Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz said they found clusters of young people related to their citizenship behaviours. Some of these clusters included activists who were interested in all areas of citizenship from protesting to having a general interest in politics, another cluster were the rebels or those who are low in patriotism and respect for the state but with a high interest in political activity and protest. The alienated group were found to be low in all areas of citizenship, individualists identified with the state, had respect for their country and its institutions, they were not generally interested in politics but were interested in taking action for change. Finally the politicians cluster were found to have respect for their country, its institutions and civic virtues, were not particularly interested in taking action for change but were very interested in politics. 

Across all the countries 34 per cent were individualists, 8 per cent were rebels and 25 per cent were alienated. When looking at the countries individually interesting patterns seemed to emerge, in Poland, Estonia and Hungary there were no rebels at all but there were a large number of rebels in Ukraine while Lithuania had a high number of politicians. Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz asked what were the young adults’ perception of democracy in relation to citizen attitudes? Did these different clusters of citizens look at democracy in a different way? 

Kõiv gave the audience a potted guide to Estonia and described the results from the country. Young people in Estonia have a number of challenges, they are more likely to be working and studying simultaneously and are more vulnerable to unemployment, and many have little involvement in policy. 

In their survey findings Kõiv and colleagues found young people in Estonia felt election honesty, freedom of speech and media independence had worsened over the last two years. With regards to the citizen activity clusters Estonian young people were less likely to be in the alienated or politician groups with a high number of individualists and zero rebels. 

Describing Hungary’s results Kinyó pointed to the country’s right wing Fidesz party and the rise of autocratic rule. They found those participants with a higher level of national identity saw the state of democracy in Hungary more favourably, generally there were a large number of individualists in the Hungarian sample, more alienated individuals than the general population of the study, fewer politicians than average and zero rebels.   

Moving to the Polish sample Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz pointed out that since 1989 Poland had been moving in an extremely positive direction. The country has a free media, free elections and voting, quality and length of life have also both improved dramatically in that time. However, in the recent EU elections around 51 per cent of the public in Poland voted for parties which promoted populist and authoritarian ideals, Krzywosz-Rynkiewicz also pointed to research which showed that those who vote for populist parties often aren’t those who are most marginalised in society. 

With regards to attitudes to democracy many of the Polish young people surveyed saw democracy as having declined in the past two years. As with Hungarians, young Poles were most likely to be categorised as individualist or alienated – they made up 76 per cent of the Polish sample. The individualists, who are more focused on individual goals, especially saw freedom of speech and media independence as having declined in recent times. 

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