Electing old leaders can harm your country's democratic values, new study finds

Can online civic education strengthen democratic values? Young people in Tunisia may provide the answer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

With widespread popular, judicial and bureaucratic opposition to the plans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to weaken the courts and concerns that it will damage Israel’s democracy, the question arises whether there is a way to promote citizens’ appreciation of democratic values.

An answer may come from Tunisia, a new democracy with a relatively recent authoritarian past, as well as from the UK. An online, randomized trial of approximately 2,000 young Tunisian adults has shown that exposure to online civic education had a positive effect on respondents’ democratic values, political efficacy and intentions to register and engage in campaign-related political participation.

“Given the trends away from democracy that we are seeing in so many countries around the world, it is imperative that we find ways to forestall this backsliding into autocracy,” said co-author Dr. Ericka Rascón Ramírez of London’s Middlesex University. “Our findings indicate that civic education interventions provided through social media platforms can be an effective, far-reaching tool for strengthening people’s commitments to democracy and their rejection of authoritarian rule.”

Democracy is under threat worldwide, she continued. “Societies are backsliding into authoritarianism in countries as diverse as Turkey, Hungary, India and Brazil. Unexpectedly, contemporary democratic recessions are characterized by bottom-up processes with authoritarian leaders, especially in new democracies, taking power through popular elections rather than elite-driven coups d’état.

THE STUDY

The study, entitled “Can Online Civic Education Induce Democratic Citizenship? Experimental Evidence from a New Democracy” and just published in the American Journal of Political Science, tested three original civic education interventions to answer this question, using Tunisia as a case study. Participants were recruited through Facebook and Instagram, where they were randomly assigned to either one of three treatment groups or a placebo.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a ceremony marking two years since the January 6, 2021, attack on US Capitol, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, US, January 6, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a ceremony marking two years since the January 6, 2021, attack on US Capitol, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, US, January 6, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

Two treatments were derived from prospect theory, emphasizing the gains of a democratic system or the losses of an autocratic system. A third treatment, derived from self-efficacy theory, provided practical information regarding participation before the 2019 elections.

“Our findings suggest that online civic education has a considerable effect on democratic citizenship, including a significant reduction in authoritarian nostalgia and increasing intended political behavior,” the authors wrote. “We further find differences between the three treatments, with the loss and gain treatments having an overall more consistent impact than self-efficacy, though the latter frame has notable effects on political efficacy and registration.”

The study “advances research on civic education and democracy promotion that is traditionally conducted offline,” they wrote. “Our study moves civic education online, where it can reach many more people at much lower costs, though with the potential drawback of delivering messages in a more passive fashion than via more interactive learning methods that have sometimes been accomplished offline.”

Meanwhile, a new study at the University of Ottawa in Canada and the University of Gothenberg in Sweden has found that American democracy is suffering due to aging leaders. People under the age of 30 constitute half of the world’s population. Previous research has shown that only 2% of those with a seat in a legislative assembly are under 30 years old.

“The relative absence of young adults in politics could contribute to what we call the vicious cycle of political alienation among the young,” explained Swedish political scientist Prof. Aksel Sundström. “It is marked by low numbers of younger people in parliaments, low voter turnouts and political disenchantment – factors that tend to feed and amplify each other.”

UNDER-REPRESENTATION

Under-representation of young adults is a major problem in the US. In 2023, many of the most influential American politicians are significantly older than their voters. President Joe Biden has turned 80 and is the oldest president in US history; the Senate’s minority leader Mitch McConnell will be 81 soon and Donald Trump, who has declared his intention to run for president again, will turn 78 during the election campaign of 2024. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is 73.

“For example, the average age of members of the House of Representatives in office from 2020 to 2022 was 58 years old, which is about 20 years older than the average American. And the age gap between voters and candidates has increased. Between 1981 and 2021, the average age of candidates rose by ten years,” Sundström wrote.

It was previously unknown where exactly in the process young candidates disappeared from American elections. Consequently, Sundström and Canadian political scientist Prof. Daniel Stockemerset set out to jointly study the nomination of candidates, the selection of candidates in the primaries, and the age of the candidates who won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2020. Their analysis was based on 1,661 candidates.

“Both Democrats and Republicans nominated a relatively small percentage of younger people in favor of middle-aged candidates. The average age of the selected candidates was 51.5 years. Only about 11% of all the candidates were aged 35 or younger.”

But there may be a good reason for this. In election campaigns, the younger candidates fared worse than the older candidates. The average age of the winners of primaries was 54, and the age of those who were ultimately elected to the House of Representatives was 58 on average.

“We see a strong connection between age and what we call election capital. This includes the experience of previous elections and politics, support from the parties, and being able to fund their campaigns. The parties often place younger candidates in electoral districts where they have little chance of winning, and this is problematic.”

American voters do not actually prefer older candidates. Instead, older candidates are just the ones with more resources and they get to run in more winnable electoral districts than younger ones, often in districts where they have already been elected, the researchers said. Surveys in the US indicate that Americans have nothing against younger candidates.

“According to a September 2022 poll by CBS News, 47% responded that politics would improve if there were younger people in politics. Another US survey indicated that nine out of 10 Americans feel that 75 should be the maximum age for serving as president.”