alienation from politics in Europe

I have been invited to speak in Spain on “youth alienation from politics” this June. I have no doubt that if you ask young people in any of the wealthy democracies what they think of politics, you will get negative responses. But the question remains whether that is a special phenomenon of youth in the present moment, of youth at all times, or of all people in the present moment.

The European Social Survey asks respondents whether they trust politicians. Respondents are offered a 10-point scale, and after some experimentation, I have divided the subjects into those who gave scores between 0-5 and those who said 6-10. The available data come from even-numbered years between 2002 and 2012:


Note, first, that not many people rate politicians 6 or higher on a 10-point scale. That is not exactly startling news. Second, all age groups were more positive in 2002, less so by 2010, and somewhat more trusting again in 2012. Finally, the four major age groups show the same trends. If you wanted to identify a generational difference, you might note that seniors lost less trust between 2002 and 2004–possibly buffered from the recession by national retirement programs. The young are currently the most trusting, albeit not by much.

This graph is evidence that there isn’t really a phenomenon of youth distrust in politics in Europe. The distrust is shared. That said, I should note two caveats. First, the span of years shown above is short; it would be interesting to know how a similar question would have been answered in 1988 or 1966. Second, I didn’t track the same birth cohorts over time. People aged 14-29 in 2002 were 24-39 a decade later. It is conceivable that tracking birth cohorts would reveal a significant difference between those born in 1982 versus 1992–but that seems unlikely given the lack of a relationship between age and trust.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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