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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Youth and the political economy of discontent
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Youth and the political economy of discontent

Young people often vote in the same way as older citizens but may use the ballot as a veto when the economic tide turns against them

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

Many people are of the view that it takes young leaders to attract the support of the youth in politics. Evidence from two of the most advanced countries in the world—the US and the UK—might force such people to revisit their ideas.

The support of young voters has been crucial in the tough fight 74-year-old Bernie Sanders is giving to the earlier favourite Hillary Clinton in the primaries for deciding the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the US.

Similarly, the rise of 66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s leader in Britain has a lot to do with the support he has received from young voters. In fact, during the Labour leadership contest, there was an influx of young members which brought down the party’s average age from 53 to 42 years, according a piece published in The Guardian.

The surge in youth support for politicians like Sanders and Corbyn comes after the overwhelming support for Narendra Modi from a large chunk of Indian voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Here too, young voters gave overwhelming support to a 60-plus Modi against a relatively younger Rahul Gandhi.

In a 2015 Economic and Political Weekly paper, Deepankar Basu and Kartik Misra, economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, argue this point by drawing a relation between the state-wise change in proportion of first-time voters in the 2014 election and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s vote share.

Based on a cross-state regression analysis, the authors find that for every 1 percentage point increase in the share of first-time voters (those aged 18-22 years) in the state’s population, the BJP recorded close to a 3.7 percentage point increase in its vote share in 2014 in comparison to the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

The paper also shows that incremental vote share falls as older voters are included in the analysis. While Basu and Misra use their findings to argue that the youth vote was significant in the BJP’s victory, they stop short of providing any explanations for it.

Interestingly, they also find that the BJP’s youth voter advantage did not hold for groups like Muslims or Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, traditionally known to be supporters of non-BJP parties. The paper argues that the Lok Sabha election results suggest there are no significant differences in voting patterns for different levels of literacy, rural population share or state per-capita incomes.

However, a more historical analysis of voting trends seems to suggest that the surge in youth support for Modi may be a one-off event in India’s polity. In an opinion piece published in Mint before the 2014 election, Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which has been researching Indian elections over the past few decades, argued that the youth in India are as divided as other voters along the usual cleavages of caste, class and region.

Kumar claims that in the five Lok Sabha elections before 2014 (2009, 2004, 1999, 1998 and 1996) the youth never voted en masse for any particular party, although a particular party might have got more votes than another in a given election. Kumar did predict a youth vote dividend for the BJP in 2014 with a rider that the support may not be equal in all states.

International evidence on the relation between age and sociopolitical attitudes also suggests that caution should be observed in drawing any one-to-one relation between age and political preferences.

In a 2007 paper published in the American Sociological Review, Nicholas L. Danigelis and Stephen J. Cutler at the University of Vermont and Melissa Hardy at the Pennsylvania State University question the commonly held stereotype of older people being more politically conservative.

The paper is based on data from 25 US General Society Surveys carried out during 1972-2004 and takes into account views on attitudes towards historically subordinate groups, support for civil liberties and boundaries of privacy. The authors find that a change in political views is as common among old people as it is among younger adults.

The study also finds that in a number of cases, older people become more liberal when younger people are becoming more liberal and more conservative when younger people are becoming more conservative, thereby implying a lifelong openness to change.

It is also a fact that in European countries, the youth’s participation in elections has been declining. Data from National Election Studies conducted by the CSDS show that even in India, the youth participation in elections did not increase significantly between 1996 and 2009.

A 2005 paper by Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein and Sarah Forrest at Nottingham Trent University looked at the question of political views of the youth in the context of extremely low turnout in the 2001 British election, where the number of those who abstained was greater than the votes polled by the winning party. The authors flag a particularly low turnout of 39% among young voters (18-24 years) in comparison to the overall polling percentage of 59.4%. The low turnout among the youth persisted in the 2005 election, although the overall voting percentage went up.

Henn and his co-authors sought to examine a hypothesis on whether the low engagement of youth is reflective of their dissatisfaction with politics in general or towards what is generally construed as politics which involves working with political parties.

To do so, the authors conducted a detailed postal questionnaire survey among randomly selected young voters, asking multiple questions to gather their views on politics as a broad concept. Their findings show that a majority of the youth claimed to have an interest in politics and were willing to discuss it with friends and families. However, a disaggregation of issues that concerned the youth shows that more people were interested in issues like health, education and war and militarism as opposed to what the authors call “traditional materialist issues" like economic matters, Europe, crime and law and order.

In addition to this, 82% of the respondents also said that they had little or no influence in political or political affairs, thus showing a feeling of lack of say rather than lack of interest in politics. It is this fact that perhaps explains the unwillingness of 60-63% of respondents to take part in political activities or protests.

The research cited above shows that rather than it being a case of the youth being disinterested in politics per se, their reluctance to engage more might be a result of cynicism about political processes and parties.

A 2010 paper by Michael S. Kang at the Emory University School of Law published in the Michigan Law Review may help us reconcile the apparent indifference of young voters towards politics with the growing support for radical politicians in advanced countries.

Kang suggests that rather than thinking of the vote as an affirmation of certain preferences voters might have, it may be better to think of the vote as a veto against the least preferred alternative among the available choices. The youth support for Sanders is such a veto against established politicians and sociopolitical structure, Jacob Weisberg argued in the Financial Times.

“What are these young Democratic voters saying with their curious vogue for Old Man Sanders?" wrote Weisberg. “Many different things, of course: that corporate money has corrupted politics; that they are unexcited about the prospect of finally electing the first woman president; that their university debt burden is too heavy; that they do not believe Mrs Clinton is quite honest; and that they find Mr Sanders authentic and sincere. But more than any of these particular messages, millennial supporters of Mr Sanders are expressing a philosophical shift. They are saying they reject the current configuration of liberal capitalism as a system capable of producing a decent society. Few of Mr Sanders’ voters are socialists in the sense of subscribing to a Marxian economic framework prescribing state ownership of industry, redistribution of wealth and a planned economy. But the term ‘socialist’ does not alarm them as it did their parents."

If one were to see the growing support for radical leaders like Sanders and Corbyn in this context, the political economy might help us understand the churn more clearly.

In a 1998 paper, American political scientist Ruy Teixeria argued that US voters have become more sensitive to change in their economic condition while making political choices in the post-1973 period compared the period before 1973. Teixeria justifies using 1973 as a break point on the grounds that although the rate of growth of the economy continued in the post-1973 period, family incomes flattened out. Inequality began rising in the 1970s.

Teixeria showed that people are twice more likely to vote against an incumbent government if they suffered a deterioration in material conditions in the post-1973 period compared to earlier.

The fact that advanced capitalist economies are still caught in a recession after so many years despite changes in governments might be pushing the envelope of politics in these countries. This difference in economic prospects marks an important distinction between India and most countries in the West, which are witnessing severe economic stress, with disproportionate impact on the young.

In contrast, India’s growth engine still retains its allure for many young people. But if the promise of better jobs for the young remains just a promise, we may expect the youth to be restive here too.

Economics Express runs weekly, and features interesting reads from the world of economics and finance.

Comments are welcome at

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Published: 27 Feb 2016, 11:28 PM IST
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