By Mohamed Harees –
A politician thinks of the next election; a statement of the next generation.- James Freeman Clarke
Many political issues require governments to try to balance the interests of people who are alive today with those of people who will be alive in the future. However, politicians place an excessive amount of focus on the short-term, at the expense of the long-term, to please their electorates and win votes. An election loser will be out of office, unable to capture large benefits from efforts invested. So when an upcoming election is in doubt, everything goes on the auction block to buy short-term political advantage. Arguably, democracy encourages political short-termism because it rewards political parties for placing a narrow focus on what they need to do in order to win the next election, rather than thinking about what impact their policies are likely to have over the much longer-term and on the next generation.
This is quite evident during the on-going Presidential election campaign where particularly the main contenders are vying with each other in enticing the electorate with a galore of promises-based on short-termism and fear- fear of the ‘other’ which has also been a recurring theme of this presidential race too; a tactic nothing new in Sri Lankan politics!
Looking at the picture as a whole, unfortunately there appears to be far too much evidence of politicians only looking ahead as far as the next election, rather than thinking about the next generation. Be it as it may, when politicians fail to look beyond the next election, they are neglecting the rights of future generations. Thus, if they are a generation apart, this is less to do with apathy, and more to do with their engaged scepticism about ‘formal’ politics in Sri Lanka. The challenge for the political parties will therefore be to prove to this generation that there can be workable political solutions, put forth by all parties and viewpoints, for the significant problems faced by them in an ever changing world.
One problem is the electoral cycle, an inherent design flaw of democratic systems that produces short political time horizons. Politicians offer enticing promises, short term fixes, tax breaks to woo voters at the next electoral contest, while ignoring long-term issues out of which they can make little immediate political capital, such as dealing with cleaning up of the political culture and the stables, ecological breakdown, pension reform or investing in early childhood education and youth development. Another problem is the politicians, in liaison with special interest groups – especially financial bigwigs, media tycoons, businessmen and corporations – using the political system to secure near-term benefits for themselves while passing the longer-term costs onto the rest of society. Whether through the funding of electoral campaigns or big-budget lobbying, the corporate hacking of politics is a global phenomenon that pushes long-term policy making off the agenda. The third and deepest cause of political presentism as per the experts is that representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people. The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights, nor are there any entities to represent their concerns or potential views on decisions today that will undoubtedly affect their lives. Most public activism are focussing on presentism and short-termism, working along a two political continuum. It’s a blind spot so enormous that we barely notice it.
The sad reality is that the future generations are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past. Slavish mentality has paralysed even the intellectual community and the public activists as well. The political leadership and their intellectual patron by extension has been treating the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where they can freely dump political, social, cultural and ecological degradation, technological risk, fiscal waste and public debt, and that they feel at liberty to plunder as they please, with a slavish followership giving their blessings at an election and retiring thereafter. There is no sense of ‘trust’ which they hold for the benefit of the future generation. The daunting challenge the nation faces is to reinvent democracy itself to overcome its inherent short-termism and to address the intergenerational theft that underlies our political ‘domination’ of the future. As Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher, says, ‘the next democratic revolution – one that empowers future generations and decolonises the future – may well be on the political horizon’. It should be focus of the political class in Sri Lanka too to enable the country to forge ahead where the young can reap can live within with dignity.
Young people come from a very different set of experiences and have seen Sri Lanka and the world in a different way than” older voters. That drives their thinking about issues in a different way. Political candidates will have to make issues central to their campaign — and also prove they understand how those issues affect young. Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein and Dominic Wring thus opines in a study ‘A generation apart? Youth and political participation in Britain’(2002), ‘although young people may, to some extent, be seen as ‘generation apart’, that is not to say that they are apolitical or apathetic. Rather, it suggests that they have a different conception of what politics is, and they are interested in a different type and style of politics. They are, therefore, politically engaged. However, when we are examining their orientations to ‘formal’ politics as it is conventionally defined and understood, our conclusion is that young people today are ‘engaged sceptics’—they are interested in political affairs, but distrustful of those who are elected to positions of power and charged with running the political system’.
Conventional wisdom suggests that young people are becoming increasingly disengaged from politics and the democratic system. However, they are seen to volunteer in record numbers in many humanitarian projects and human rights issues. They are dedicated to helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and fight for the downtrodden and vulnerable. So, why does a generation so committed to volunteer service recoil at the prospect of political involvement? Simply put, this generation believes that it can best make a difference through these individual acts of volunteerism, rather than wade in murkier political waters and in a political system which has long lost its appeal and credibility. Further, millennials around the world are utilizing social media and technology as a medium for political engagement instead of entering formal politics. Erin Loos Cutraro founder of She Should Run, a nonpartisan group that helps women run for office, says “their comfort with social media could reshape politics”.
The next generation will not accept a political system that does not speak to them. “We’re less interested in big government vs. small government than we are in better government—making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive,” wrote the authors of ‘Government By and For Millennials’, a 2013 report from the US Roosevelt Institute. This sense of detachment may be as a result of two processes at work: The first of these is a ‘period effect’, and suggests that young people are living in a world that is markedly different from those lived by previous youth cohorts. A second explanation for young people’s apparent disengagement from formal politics is that they have a different conception of what constitutes politics. Also, the notorious opacity of government spending and corruption and lack of a vision drives most millennials away too.
Politicians will soon face a ‘rude awakening’ from the next generation of voters. If the politicians of today become accustomed to ignoring their young constituents and continue to adopt short-termism policies, they will face a rude awakening when we become old enough to vote. While millennials, even the dissatisfied ones, still do have a level of trust in the government, they don’t put the future solely in government’s hands. More than half of millennials believe in the power of their own actions and the abilities of organizations they support to create positive change. They use all tools available to them – whether traditional or new – to make a difference for the issues and causes they care about. As a result, this generation has begun to dramatically alter philanthropy and society’s perceptions of how to inspire change locally, nationally and globally.
In this context, our tendency to look to the political issues of the moment, rather than the foundational challenges that face our future democracy, is an abdication of our responsibility to take care of our young people. We, as adults, have thus clearly not solved or made substantial progress on so many issues that affect our youngest generations. It doesn’t have to be a conflict of one generation against another. It’s just a realization that this generation — that has a direct personal stake in so many of the decisions that are being made — also has something to offer in helping to make them. For example, the governments which have been in power have allowed the national debt to rise; this has mostly been caused by borrowing money to finance current spending. One day, the future generation will have to accept higher taxes and lower spending in order to pay this borrowing off. Climate change is another area of concern widely neglected. Pension promises is another good example of short-termism.
Fortunately, there are several mechanisms which can compel governments to think about the future more systematically. National constitutions for example, can bind governments to respecting the rights of both current and future generations. A surprisingly large number of countries have national constitutions which refer explicitly to protecting the rights of future generations. Often these concern the natural environment, over which – it can be argued – each generation has a clear duty of stewardship towards future generations. The German constitution, for example, contains the following clause: “Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the State shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals by legislation and, in accordance with law and justice, by executive and judicial action, all within the framework of constitutional order.” In other words, if the constitutional rights of future generations in this area are infringed, the culprits can in principle be pursued in law.
Sri Lanka can also learn about some other types of legal protection in other countries, which can be used to prevent excessive financial short-termism by today’s politicians. Eg. USA’s debt ceiling, and the balanced budget amendments which exist in many European countries. These are methods of placing strict legal limits on how much debt, governments are allowed to accrue and pass on to future generations, although their effectiveness has been called into question by economists. Another strategy is giving some kind of parliamentary representation to future generations, not in the future but now. Hungary is a pioneer in this field: in 2007 Dr Sándor Fülöp was appointed to act as Hungary’s first ombudsman for future generations. His role was to act as an advocate for the rights of future citizens within the legislative procedure of Hungary’s parliament, which included having the power to propose amendments to laws which may have threatened those rights. The UN is similarly considering establishing the post of High Commissioner for Future Generations. Thus, the need to factor intergenerational concerns into policy-making is becoming increasingly accepted.
We should enlist young people as equals to help us solve our problems. We need innovative ideas to spur political participation. Young people have the ability and acumen to make informed political decisions. And they deserve the right to have a say in issues that affect them. We also need to ensure that we are creating a democracy that increasingly places equity at the forefront, specifically, racial equity. Young people can help achieve this goal of diversity- of ensuring that every single young person, irrespective of their background, can have a real voice and say in our country’s future.
The political status quo has rarely responded well to youth activism; in fact, its first reaction is often violence. However, gone are the days of the blind following the blind. Thanks to social media and the greater access to resources and education, the young, the millennials are the most informed generation of voters to date. This is a group that truly believes they can make a difference together and expects their leaders (in the political and business worlds) to listen to what they have to say. Therefore, missing the next generation for the next election by engaging in political short termism will be suicidal to Sri Lanka. The good news is that it’s still not a death knell for democracy – so much as a call-to-action for government to re-engage this younger generation or millennials.