6.1. Between Disengagement and Critical Politicization
First and preliminary analysis of our attitudinal typology developed in Section 5.1
. shows that, for the period between 2002 and 2014, the most frequent category among the Spanish population was disengaged (54.3%), a long way from the other three categories: critically politicized (19.3%), conformist (16.4%), and satisfied (10.0%). However, this first descriptive referring to the population average throughout the period hides changes in time and differences between groups, which will be analyzed in detail below.
When we examined the distribution of these categories throughout the period under consideration, the high degree of discontent associated with the socioeconomic and political crisis became evident (Figure 6
). While the two categories that reflect satisfaction with the functioning of the system (satisfied and conformist) moved between 30% and 35% in the first years of the decade, from 2012 they were reduced to less than half. On the contrary, the categories that reflect discontent with the situation (disengaged and critically politicized) were triggered from this last date, reaching percentages of around 85%. Within this last group, progression of the critically politicized stands out against those who hold positions of distance: in 2008, the relationship between both categories was 3.5 in favor of the disengaged, while in 2014 it was reduced to only 1.5.
It is important to remember that, as explained in Section 3
, 2011 was a year that marked a milestone in the recent political history of Spain and the beginning of a protest cycle and political change. It was precisely in 2011 when the biggest protest on 15 May (15-M) took place and the so-called Indignados
Movement ‘exploded’, in a context of growing perception of corruption and mistrust in politicians, and at the height of a severe economic crisis that had officially started in 2008. A central axis of social mobilization was the protest against the lack of “real democracy” (in fact, the organization at the heart of the mobilization was “Democracia Real Ya
”), and the criticism against the two main national political parties: PP (conservative) and PSOE (socialist).
Consequently, in subsequent analyses we identified two different ‘periods’ of political change in Spain: before and after the cycle of protests against austerity politics and the institutional crisis that has begun with the 15-M movement [27
]. Thus, in this paper, we differentiated between “Before 15-M” (rounds 1–5, of which fieldwork in Spain was conducted between 2002 and 2011), and “After 15-M” (rounds 6 and 7, of which fieldwork in Spain was conducted at the beginning of 2013 and 2015). It is important to note that, although part of the fieldwork for round 5 in Spain was conducted between April and July 2011, during the months in which the 15-M Movement exploded, we must consider this round as “Pre-15-M”. The rationale behind this decision is that, even when great changes in the party system and political attitudes began to be seen in 2011, these changes did not crystallize in Spain until a few years later. In fact, although electoral support for both the conservative and the socialist party backed down electorally in the first period, in the short term it was the socialist party that came out the most injured. Meanwhile, and despite the fall in their electoral share, PP became the government party by the end of 2011.8
By differentiating the two moments of the political cycle, we can clearly see the marked changes in the typology of attitudes toward politics (see Figure 6
). The number of disengaged individuals hardly changed, but the number of satisfied, and, by much more, the number of conformists, receded, while the number of critically politicized individuals, who previously only represented 14.5% of the population, doubled and later comprised 31.5% of the total population.
This change had important implications. With the worsening of the crisis and the beginning of a new political cycle, there was unprecedented critical politicization in Spain. Spanish political culture, which had been characterized by high disaffection and high detachment towards politics [66
], changed in these years in a crucial way. Interestingly, in the context of growing political discontent, the disengaged were not those who increased numerically, as would be expected, but rather the critically politicized. This tendency was also very clearly reproduced among the “crisis generation”, as can be seen when we compare cohorts defined by their year of birth (Figure 7
Whereas before the change in the political cycle, young people showed themselves more conformist with the situation, from that moment on, satisfaction sharply dropped, and those who maintain a critical view of the situation increased and even doubled.
Young people, despite their lower demographic weight, have a prominent role in this process of critical politicization described above, in which an increase in dissatisfaction with democracy and mistrust in political actors and institutions is accompanied by a high interest in politics. Figure 8
graphically depicts the predicted probabilities of the interaction between birth cohort and cycle, given that the interpretation of the additive and multiplicative terms of the interaction between the two variables was not straightforward [67
]. The estimated odds ratio of the models is included in Table A4
in the Appendix C
As can be seen, before the 15-M movement and the subsequent changes in the political landscape in Spain, the proportion of millennials labeled as disengaged was above average. Specifically, around 56.1% of individuals born between 1981 and 2000 fell within this category, while among the total population the figure was just 53.7%. Since 15-M, however, the percentage of disengaged millennials has barely changed and is not significantly different from the population average. Conversely, although the proportion of millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) labeled as critically politicized before (14.4%) and after 15-M (30.2%) is somewhat lower than the average, this is one of the groups where the number of critical individuals has grown the most, only exceeded in increase by those born between 1966 and 1980, i.e., generation X (see relative changes in Table 2
below). This is in line with previous studies focusing on the Spanish case that shows how, contrary to socialization studies’ expectations, it is not youngest cohort, but rather those in their late twenties and thirties at the beginning of the century, who have most profoundly changed their perspectives regarding political institutions and political involvement [44
Taken as a whole, the previous data show that the change in the political cycle has been accompanied by a reconfiguration in attitudes towards politics. There has been a decline in the proportion of Spaniards that we label as conformist or satisfied in political terms, while the proportion of disengaged people has barely changed, and the number of individuals critically politicized has grown very significantly. This increase has been particularly noticeable among young people, although, comparatively, they are not the most critical group towards politics. In addition, we have verified how within the group of young people there are differences worthy of mention. It is not in the younger groups where critical politicization has increased the most. That is why it is essential to explore, in more detail below, the different processes of political socialization of young people of different age groups, their feelings towards politics, and their self-perceived most effective ways to influence politics.
6.2. Dissatisfaction with the Political Situation: Profiles and Implications
In this first part of the study, we have underlined the process of critical politicization of a considerable number of young Spaniards. However, this result is double-sided. On the one hand, many young people, instead of moving away from politics, have become critically involved in it. On the other hand, this cannot hide the high degree of dissatisfaction with the evolution of the political system during the Great Recession. Specifically, almost nine out of 10 young people are in one of the two categories that group ‘those dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy’ and ‘those who have low confidence in political institutions’ (disengaged and critically politicized). Therefore, it is necessary to delve into the characteristics of this political discontent, which is what we do in the second part of the study.
The first task was to examine the sociodemographic and political profiles of these very dissatisfied young people. A first bivariate analysis of the different available indicators showed that the age and socioeconomic position of the young were the sociodemographic variables that are most associated with youth political discontent: young adults, the unemployed, and those who depend economically on their parents (although they have been emancipated) are the groups with the highest predicted probability of political discontent. If we look at the political indicators, there is no clear association with the level of subjective involvement of young people (political interest and frequency with which they talk about politics). On the other hand, this association does occur in the ideological terrain: 40% of those who locate themselves on the most radical left (1–2) belong to our collective of discontented young people.
To better define these profiles of the most discontented young people, we have estimated a binomial logistic regression model. Firstly, we ran a model focusing on socioeconomic factors such as gender, age group, educational attainment, activity status, or the degree of economic dependence (panel A in Figure 9
). Then, we expanded the model by adding political variables such as sentiments towards politics, interest in politics, ‘talk about politics’, and the left–right scale of ideological self-placement (panel B in Figure 9
). The full coefficients of the model are included in Table A5
in the Appendix C
If we first look at the socioeconomic variables, as seen in the following figure, we see that young men seem somewhat more politically disgruntled than women, but the differences in terms of gender are not statistically significant. There are also no significant differences between young people with different educational levels. However, it seems that, ceteris paribus, those who have comparatively lower levels of political discontent are the so-called young teenagers (between 15 and 19 years old).
It should also be noted that the economic and employment situation of a young individual are important determinants of political discontent. Specifically, we look at two different aspects: on the one hand, the relationship with the activity (if they are working, studying, studying and working, or unemployed), and, on the other hand, the degree of personal autonomy. To create this last measure, we have simultaneously taken into account whether the young people were emancipated or not (that is, if they lived on their own or with their families); and if they were economically independent, that is, if they lived mainly from their income, or they depended on other people, usually their own parents.
As can be seen in Figure 9
a, there are relevant differences in political discontent according to the relationship with economic activity, especially among those who are unemployed and those who combine work and studies. Controlling for the other analyzed factors, young people who study and work at the same time are less politically disgruntled than the average. On the other hand, and in line with what was pointed out in the previous section, it is the unemployed who clearly have higher levels of political discontent.
In addition, the degree of economic dependence is also an important predictor of political discontent, especially for those who have emancipated themselves from the family home. As shown in Figure 9
, predicted probabilities of political discontent increase considerably among young people who, despite having become emancipated, must continue to be economically dependent (29.3%), something that does not happen among those who have already achieved personal autonomy (they have been emancipated and are economically independent). Although, in a more nuanced way, we must also highlight the increase in the likelihood of widespread discontent among those who are economically independent but still live in the family home (25.9%), a situation that sometimes reflects the existence of significant obstacles in achieving personal autonomy.
Taken as a whole, these results show that the political discontent of young people has socioeconomic roots that could be interpreted in terms of frustration of expectations. In this sense, it is not coincidental that, controlling for the other demographic factors, the most politically discontent are young people who want to work but cannot find work (i.e., the unemployed) and those who have emancipated themselves from the family home but are still economically dependent on their families (that is, the emancipated but dependent).
When political variables are introduced into the model, the most remarkable thing is that the feelings of young people towards politics largely explain their dissatisfaction, but also, and in a very marked way, ideological self-location. Specifically, the variable on feelings towards politics, which is a novelty of the 2016 edition of the Young People in Spain Survey, includes rich attitudinal information. For the purposes of this analysis, all the answers have been grouped into three categories: negative feelings (such as distrust, irritation, corruption, theft, disappointment, disgust, or contempt) that represent the majority, specifically 54.1% of young people; feelings of indifference, which represent 29.4% of young people (such as boredom or indifference); and finally positive ones (such as enthusiasm, interest, change, importance, hope for the future), mentioned by 16.0% of young people. Regarding political discontent, and how could it not be otherwise, young people who express more negative feelings towards politics are those who are much more politically disaffected.
Apart from the other factors, ideology is an important predictor of political discontent among young Spaniards. As can be clearly seen in Figure 9
b, it is those who are located on more left-wing positions who undoubtedly show much greater political discontent with the situation of democracy in Spain. On the other hand, young people who are ideologically situated in the center and/or on the right are much less politically dissatisfied.
Finally, it is interesting to note the different effect of interest in politics and the frequency with which young people talk about politics, two indicators that measure the subjective involvement of citizens with political issues. As seen in Figure 9
b, on the one hand there are young people who talk about or discuss politics more often with their friends, family, or colleagues, and who have a somewhat higher level of political discontent compared to the rest. However, and perhaps surprisingly, political discontent is lower among those who have a greater interest in politics. The fact that political news has become a phenomenon of rapid and spectacular communicative consumption might explain why disgruntled young people talk more about issues that, despite not being of interest to them, are omnipresent and cause irritation and disgust.
In sum, this analysis suggests that the most politically disaffected young Spaniards are those who declare themselves to be on the left, who manifest fundamentally negative feelings towards politics, and who see their future expectations frustrated, either because they want to work but cannot find work (that is, they are unemployed) or because they cannot achieve their longing for personal autonomy, despite having become emancipated.
One of the questions raised in the second stage of this research was whether political discontent among young people could be a factor of erosion of participatory and representative democracy. To answer this question, the degree of political mobilization of these young people, measured through their forms of political participation, and the efficiency attributed to the different forms of participation as an instrument of political influence are explored below. If the aforementioned hypothesis were confirmed, it would be expected that the most disaffected youths would participate in political activities less than other youths and would remain highly skeptical about their ability to influence sociopolitical change.
If we start with the analysis of participation repertoires, the results are very clear. As can be seen in Figure 10
, in all cases the most dissatisfied young politically participate in protest actions (demonstrations, strikes), in more institutionalized forms of participation (forming part of parties or contacting politicians), in activities that express commitment to a cause (signing petitions, wearing badges), or in those related to political consumption (carrying out boycott actions or buying certain products), to a greater extent than other young people. That is to say, politically disgruntled young people participate in a greater proportion than those who do not manifest such an explicit rejection of the current democratic situation. The most interesting thing is that this participation is also higher when it comes to voting: 67.3% of the disaffected declare having voted in elections, which is the most frequent form of participation compared to 64.3% of other young people.
This greater degree of political mobilization of ‘political discontents’ is corroborated through other complementary data. For example, these are the young people who undertake the greatest number of forms of political participation: on average, they carry out four of the 14 presented, compared to 3.4 of those who do not belong to the defined group. Among the discontents, we also find the largest number of activists (23%), defined as those young people who perform seven or more activities, exceeding by five points the average percentage of activists that exist in the whole sample.10
Regarding the ways that young people consider most effective to influence collective life, we see that, for all of them, participation in elections as an instrument to promote their own positions is the most effective (Figure 11
). This is very evident among the group of young people who do not express strong political discontent, but also among the most politically discontent young people. Among the latter, more than 40% believe that voting is the best option they have to influence change. This inclination towards the electoral route is tempered by the preference that a significant percentage of discontented young people manifest of direct action through protest. Consequently, if they are faced with the dilemma of electoral democracy against direct (or participatory) democracy, young people most dissatisfied with the Spanish political situation tend to be divided between both categories, but with an evident inclination for electoral participation.
A final feature to highlight is the increase among the group of disaffected young people of those who are skeptical about the possibility of influencing political change. This skepticism, which manifests itself among one in four discontented young people, would indicate that within this group politically mobilized sectors coexist (the most numerous) with others who are more disconnected from politics, with a low sense of political efficacy and high democratic disaffection.
In sum, the above analysis provides solid evidence to support an optimistic vision regarding the future of representative democracy in Spain and the participation and political involvement of young people. Although some young critics feel disengaged with politics, the truth is that discontent is channeled to a greater extent through participation, both in nonelectoral forms of participation and through elections.