Growing into politics? The development of adolescent views on democracy

Orientations of adolescents towards democracy are part of an intense societal and academic debate. Are young people positively oriented towards democracy and do they develop more nuanced and complex views on democratic issues when they age? Hessel Nieuwelink, Geert ten Dam, Femke Geijsel and Paul Dekker investigate…

In a recently published article we investigate these questions. We interviewed forty adolescents in the Netherlands at the age of fourteen and sixteen. We explore how adolescents themselves make sense of democratic decision-making, how they prefer to deal with democratic issues both in everyday life and political democracy, and how these preferences develop over time.

The results of this study show that as the interviewed adolescents aged, they became more familiar with the political domain and politicians, such as Geert Wilders (a right-wing populist politician who has dominated Dutch politics in recent years). However, discussing politics remained a difficult task. Some adolescents were unable to discuss politics and to give their interpretation of democracy.

The adolescents’ views on democracy did not simultaneously become more complex as they aged. Many interviewees claimed that decisions in parliament are simply made by a majority, and the largest group of the adolescents endorsed this notion of coming to a decision in some form. As a consequence, they adjusted their preferences regarding decision-making in everyday situations to how they perceived the workings of Dutch politics. The initial complexity in their views made room for a one-dimensional majority perspective on democratic decision-making.

For example, the interviewees were asked how they would deal with decision-making in the classroom. One boy took several principles in account at the age of fourteen while solely focusing on majority rule at the age of sixteen.

At the age of fourteen: ‘First of all, what matters is the arguments that are put forward. But if the arguments from both sides are of equal weight, the majority will decide.’

At the age of sixteen: ‘Those three students will have no say, because the others are with more people…. I would want to know why they object, but even if they have a good reason, we will still reschedule the class.’

The focus on one principle was not only apparent with regard to democratic issues in the classroom. Also regarding decision-making about situations where freedom rights are at stake, a group of adolescents started to focus solely on majority rule. If a small majority of religious fundamentalists want to abolish freedom rights, these adolescents think that it is in line with democracy to do so.

The study shows that adolescents not simply base their attitudes towards democracy and political institutions on everyday experiences, as previous studies suggest. Our findings suggest more or less the opposite: adolescents do not gradually grow into politics but (their image of) politics is colonizing their social life preferences towards decision-making.

Hessel Nieuwelink

Hessel Nieuwelink

Hessel Nieuwelink is senior lecturer and researcher at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) in the Netherlands. His research examines citizenship education with a special focus on the development of democratic citizenship among adolescents, inequalities between students and effective ways of dealing with controversial issues in the classroom.

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