A Conversation about Youth, Trust, and Democracy

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Written by: Ryan Fuentes, Pauli Murray College ’23

This piece was published as part of our YMUN Pegasus series.

“Why don’t young people trust their government?”

The question, asked during a UN debate on democracy, felt inevitable. Young people are the heart of the future of democracy; they will decide what it means to our generation. Besides, it is the young people growing up in today’s world that most often find themselves at odds with their government’s choices.

The moderator had set the tone by first considering democracy “an ongoing dialogue between political and civil society.” The idea was not to measure democracy itself in traditional ways of votes or institutions. In the U.S., perhaps we too often forget that our democratic system does not define democracy itself. Rather, as different nations struggle with their own applications of democracy, so the UN debate between nationalities was not a single answer, but a conversation.

But any question about young people and trust cannot be answered by theory or speculation, but hard experience only. After all, when humans mistrust, it is most often because of a lack of understanding between two sides.

Looking around the room, I saw not many but a few young people, most notably a group of Swedish Scouts. The question was not for them. The moderator had directed it to an older man sitting at a panel up front. His name was Jay Naidu, and several decades ago, he left university to be a community organizer in South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement. Back then, with many  expecting racial civil war, the largely peaceful end of Apartheid in 1994 gave people a lot to celebrate. “We were the political miracle of the world,” said Mr. Naidu. 

But just last year, as the moderator had also pointed out, fewer than 50% of South Africans voted in their elections. 

As Mr. Naidu saw the issue, people do not feel like their government cares about them. But voting is only one specific problem. In his view, democracy at its core is social justice. Nelson Mandela and other leaders may be gone now, but Mr. Naidu never expected them to deliver all the solutions. Instead, they put in place “the containers for us and future generations to do the work.”

Perhaps Mr. Naidu could not speak for today’s generation, but his own experience served as an important reminder: even in a room full of tenured adults, each one was at one point a young person who faced their own, though arguably the similar, kinds of challenges that we face today.

With respect to democracy, Mr. Naidu warned against our present use of older models. He feels that the post-war mindset after World War II still governs much of today’s thinking: “But 70 years later, we need to open the dialogue. We cannot just rely on experience of the past.”

He proposed greater intergenerational conversation. And although he did not say how, it seemed symbolic that many of the following questions from the floor were asked by the Swedish Scouts. One asked: “What can young people do to protect democracy?”

Mr. Naidu responded, this time with an old adage: “Who does this world belong to? We don’t inherit it from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” 

He argued that young people need to speak up, challenge their governments, and make change happen. He went on: “Democracy is not just about governments, it’s about civil society, too.” 

Mr. Naidu finally noted the significance of understanding the human relationship between people, regardless of things like race, language, culture, and sexual orientation. He pointed to the notion that together, we have all the wisdom we need to make the world a better place. In accordance, he finished by telling young people to believe in themselves.

His point is a strong one. In measuring particular aspects of democracy, like voting, we can easily bring up numbers; while just under half of South Africans voted last year, just over half of age-eligible Americans voted in 2016. But accounting for these numbers becomes much more personal and much harder to do. Mr. Naidu spoke from personal experience, not just in terms of specific actions but the kinds of choices that young people must make. He provided a powerful message, one that itself seemed to make a connection between his generation and mine.

For the future of democracy, Mr. Naidu placed his faith in young people. For our part, it seems young people must trust and believe in ourselves before we can put our faith into democratic government.