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Ideals Without Institutions: Understandings of Democracy and Democratic Participation Among Ecuadorian Youth

Abstract

Many scholars of democratization have identified citizen support for democracy as an important determinant of democratic consolidation and deepening. Fewer have explored in depth what everyday citizens actually understand democracy to mean. If mass values shape democratic prospects, what specific notion of “democracy” are the masses inclined to support? This study addresses this question through focus groups conducted with 186 young people in Ecuador, a country that has epitomized challenges of democratic discontent and instability in Latin America. As compared to the dominant survey-based literature, interactive focus group conversations offer a more complex and complete picture of youth democratic perspectives, thus sharpening our analysis of the link between citizen attitudes and democratic performance. Findings have relevance for contemporary debates about “authoritarian drift” in the region, showing youth as strongly invested in democratic freedoms, though highly skeptical of the institutions that allegedly guarantee them. More broadly, the analysis provides a window into how youth conceive of and practice democracy in contexts of unstable democratization.

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Notes

  1. For studies on young people’s understandings of democracy outside of Latin America, see May, John D. 1980. “Popular Conceptions of Democracy.” International Journal of Political Education 3 (4): 323–50. on Australian high school students; Flanagan, Constance A, Leslie S Gallay, Sukhdeep Gill, Erin Gallay, and Naana Nti. 2005. “What Does Democracy Mean? Correlates of Adolescents’ Views.” Journal of Adolescent Research 20 (2): 193–218. on American middle and high school students, and; Arensmeier, Cecilia. 2010. “The Democratic Common Sense Young Swedes’ Understanding of Democracy—Theoretical Features and Educational Incentives.” Young 18 (2): 197–222. on Swedish youth.

  2. While the wording of the “support for democracy” question varies, a common phrasing is: With which of the following statements are you most in agreement?: Democracy is the best form of government, in some circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable, for people like me, a democratic regime makes no difference.

  3. Based on AmericasBarometer survey data, support for democracy has remained relatively consistent over time, though results vary somewhat by country.

  4. Based on Latinobarometer data for 2008 accessed through their online portal at http://www.latinobarometro.org/latOnline.jsp.

  5. Based on Latinobarometer data for 2006 accessed through their online portal. In comparison, in 1997 and in 2015, about 20 and 25% percentage of respondents, respectively, expressed confidence in the legislature.

  6. Based on review of Latinobarometer data for 2004, 2008, and 2011 accessed through their online portal.

  7. Preliminary interviews with youth considered part of the economic and political elite (ex. children of political leaders or business owners) suggests that they would place far greater emphasis on formal political institutions in their conception of democracy than the youth who participated in these focus groups

  8. The Ecuadorian non-profit organization Participación Ciudadana (Citizen Participation) provided input based on their experimentation with similar methodologies in a broader study of Ecuadorian citizenship practices.

  9. The 2000–2001 Afrobarometer survey asked respondents, “What, if anything, do you understand by the word ‘democracy’? What comes to mind when you hear the word?” www.afrobarometer.org.

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Gillman, A. Ideals Without Institutions: Understandings of Democracy and Democratic Participation Among Ecuadorian Youth. St Comp Int Dev 53, 428–448 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-017-9257-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-017-9257-7

Keywords

  • Youth
  • Democratization
  • Political culture
  • Ecuador
  • Latin America