OCDTs: An Ongoing Reflection on the State of Democracy Today from Voices all around the World

9 December

The Open Chair Democracy Talks (OCDTs) are at the heart of the International Youth Think Tank’s aim to promote the values of democracy, by having open conversations with ordinary people across the world. Beginning in Athens in 2021 with chairs borrowed from a restaurant, eager Youth Fellows, and cooperative passers-by, the IYTT has since carried out a total of 27 OCDT. Simply, Open Chair Democracy Talks consist of inviting passers-by to have a conversation with an IYTT Youth Fellow. Prompted by thought-provoking questions, the participants are encouraged to share their views on democracy and themselves as citizens, in talks which occur throughout many cities in the world. This quick, easy, and innovative method of democracy activism allows us to find out what citizens think about the state of democracy and inspires participants to activate themselves as citizens striving towards the collective goal of improving democracy and society. As such, here is an overviewing reflection of the thoughts and feelings of many citizens from many places, collected from all the OCDTs to date.

When asked about specific words or phrases that relate to democracy, many people replied with specific institutions and processes relating to democracy such as ‘elections’, ‘voting,’ ‘political parties’, ‘the Constitution’ and ‘Parliament’, for example. This highlighted the importance of upholding these aspects of democracy. However, the most common word associated with democracy for participants was ‘freedom’, perhaps one of the most important values of democracy. Lots of other respondents noted qualities which are encompassed within democracy, such as ‘equality’, ‘power to people’, ‘human rights’ and the ‘ability to choose’. Some people also thought of ‘justice’ and ‘safety’ as relating to democracy, as well as ‘community’, ‘unity’ and ‘solidarity’. Interestingly, many citizens also firstly thought of phrases that portray the negative aspects or difficulties of democracy, reflecting the current state of democracy in the view of some. These included descriptions of democracy as a ‘dream’, ‘utopia’, an ‘illusion’ and ‘abstract’, as well as ‘dysfunctional’, ‘failing’, ‘broken’ and ‘non-existent’. On the other hand, others felt more positive and active about democracy with ‘activism’, ‘debate’, ‘difference in opinions’, ‘participation’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘influence’ all recurring answers. Finally, other common thoughts on democracy were answers of participants’ own countries, both positively and negatively, as well as traditional democratic countries such as Ancient Greece. Therefore, the OCDTs show a very broad opinion of democracy, with some people highlighting important values of democracy, some keen to point out its shortcomings and others associated with more practical and literal elements of democracy.

With freedom an important value and reflection of democracy, we also asked OCDT participants how free they felt in choosing their life path. Many people (roughly 52% of all respondents) said that they felt free, mostly due to the ability to make their own choices regarding their course of life, but also because of privilege and democracy itself. However, a substantial number of people also highlighted that they felt free in choosing their own life path, but with limitations, showing the scope for freedom in this sense to be increased. Also, of those who said that they did not feel free in choosing their own life path, reasons included various economic and financial restrictions, ‘societal expectations’ and ‘family influence’, their background, race, gender, and sexuality.

Indeed, most people (approximately 52%) said that they did not have power as a citizen and cited similar reasons for their lack of freedom, such as financial restrictions and their background or characteristics. However, a lot of other participants also felt powerful through groups within society, but not alone, and felt that they could use potential political power more, suggesting the importance of political engagement. To further support the importance of democratic political involvement, those who felt powerful often cited the voting and electoral system, their right to speak and express themselves freely and their right to protest or engage in petitions as sources of political power.

Finally, the most common idea that people gave during the Open Chair Democracy Talks to make them feel more empowered as a citizen was to increase aspects of direct democracy. Specific suggestions to implement this included greater engagement and more democratic social structures to increase accountability and transparency between politicians and the electorate, as well as self-governance and less power for political parties. Increasing knowledge and education would also increase power for citizens, according to respondents. Participants also believe that initiatives like youth organizations to increase the engagement of youth in politics and providing more autonomy to local communities would both help to reconnect politicians with people. Other ways to increase people’s political power include more finance for people, a greater focus on the arts and culture sectors and ending discrimination to contribute to a more equal, open, and democratic society.

As highlighted by the desire of many people for more forms of direct democracy and a greater voice, the Open Chair Democracy Talks give people a way to engage as active citizens and express their thoughts and opinions on the current state of democracy through a meaningful channel. Importantly, these opinions can be collected and understood by the International Youth Think Tank to then inform other people and, eventually, policymakers to better reflect the desires of people in policy. Increasing forms of direct democracy is therefore a keyway in which the democratic desires of people can be met. Also, encouraging knowledge, education, and exposure of, not just ideas on democracy, but also ways in which people can actively participate democratically within society is an important step to take towards a democratic society.

Ollie Gee is an IYTT Youth Fellow and participant at the IYTT International Youth Conference 2022, studying Economics and German at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, currently on an exchange at Universität Mannheim in Germany

Ollie Gee

Youth Fellow