Democracy Deficit Disorder

Learning Democracy with Young People

by Adam F.C. Fletcher (Author) J. Cynthia McDermott (Author)
©2023 Textbook X, 258 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 540


There is mounting evidence throughout the world that democracy is in retreat. This can be stopped and repaired by infusing it with action, beliefs, and knowledge. This book offers a powerful prescription to stop the democracy deficit disorder: authentically engaging young people throughout our democracy. Through critical thinking and substantive actions, adults can become allies to young people. This will lead to authentic youth engagement, which will make democracy more meaningful, purposeful, and sustainable than ever before.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I The End of Democracy Deficit Disorder
  • 1 Young People and Democracy
  • 2 Understanding Democracy
  • 3 Demolishing Democracy
  • 4 Solving the Deficit
  • 5 Democracy Matters in Many Ways
  • 6 Democracy Means Action
  • 7 The Owned Democracy
  • Part II Fighting Democracy Deficit Disorder
  • 8 Issues That Matter
  • 9 Adults as Allies
  • Part III Learning to Challenge Democracy Deficit Disorder
  • 10 Youth Facilitating Democracy
  • 11 Beyond Activities, toward Strategies
  • 12 Praxis Matters
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I: Glossary of Terms
  • References


“Our understanding of children as immature may lead us to focus on capabilities they lack rather than what they have.”—John Dewey (1916, p. 46)

When Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder was published in 2006, it helped many of us begin to look at the natural world differently particularly for young people. His statement quoting a child who said that he would rather play indoors because that is where the electrical outlets are is a very memorable image. The choices before the youth of the world are narrow because of our adultist perspectives about them.

A title like democracy deficit disorder conjures up similar concerns. But what is meant by this? Synonyms for deficit include absence and deficiency and paucity. The news is resplendent with increasing concerns about the death of democracy not only here but also around the world. There is increasing evidence that there is a democracy deficit and this book has many suggestions about why that is and what can be done about it.

The musician called Sting, born as Gordon Sumner, said in concert recently,

Democracy is under attack. It’s under attack in every country in the world. It’s in grave danger of being lost unless we defend it. The alternative to democracy is a nightmare, a prison, of the mind. That alternative is tyranny. All tyranny is based on a lie. The greater the tyranny, the bigger the lie. Disagree with the tyrant and you risk imprisonment, torture and death. Yet that is what we must do, all of us. We must protect our right to speak the truth. The war in the Ukraine is an absurdity, based upon a lie. If we swallow that lie, the lie will eat us. The lie is terrified of the truth. We must not lose this battle. (Associated Press, 2022)

A disorder is usually connected in our daily vernacular with medicine and psychology. Here however we prefer to think about it with these synonyms: derangement, disorganization, turbulence, and conflict. As democracy continues to spiral toward its demise, the disordered aspects of it remain out of control and anarchic. Throughout this book, examples of this disordered process are highlighted with suggestions for righting the ship and getting it sailing smoothly are shared.

The main suggestion of this book is how adults can form equitable partnerships with youth around the world to actively support, promote, and engage together in action that fosters healthy democracy. Before we do that though, this book dares to ask what are adults doing that is defeating youth as they enact their complex, interdependent, and just socio-political lives?

To address that question, we discuss the Youth-Industrial Complex, a culture-wide phenomenon that exists to create, facilitate, habituate, perpetuate, and encapsulate the lives of young people. With adults constantly directing the thinking and the management of the young, children and youth today grow to become followers rather than initiators. The democracy deficit disorder is a vehicle that prevents youth from obtaining their rights. It is nothing less than the death knell of the American democratic experiment. At the advent of the American culture that relies on corporate, consumerist, and classist dominance through economic and cultural globalization, young people today have been prevented from enacting what they can and want to do. This book shows that despite that, children and youth around the world are taking powerful, positive, and practical steps to birth, sustain, challenge, and transform the democracy that claims to represent them.

Society has ignored this though, stripping the rights of youth from them and denying them the basic rights of citizenship which they are due. This bias toward adults is the basis of adultism, and throughout this book, the reader will come to understand what this attitude and perspective means for young people. From a child’s earliest days, their interest in curiosity, fair play, cooperation, and joy in the unknown is evident. By early school years much of this energy and process has been stripped away leaving young people who no longer ask questions or challenge the status quo. A democracy needs all its citizens to be like those young children with their ability to enact a range of interests and capacities. This book engages readers in an understanding of what is lost as children grow and experience the consistent and dramatic actions that strip them of their citizenship, their agency, their purposes, and their passions. It highlights how others have seen the young differently as this book encourages.

One such example occurred in Poland during the Nazi occupation. A doctor, educator, and writer opened orphanages for Jewish children. His name was Henryk Goldszmit and his pen name was Janusz Korczak. With a unique view of childhood and children, he set out to define the role that children can play in the world. He believed fervently that children were not people waiting to become adults but rather had rights and privileges akin to adults. To him, young people were already citizens and social actors.

Goldszmit wrote about these ideas, but more importantly put them into action with the children. Together, the young people created a government structure, a newspaper, a juris prudence system, and many other ways of self-management. This was indeed a democratic process, ironically taking place within a ghetto. As a doctor and a rebel against the German occupation, he maintained the orphanage for more than 200 children until 1942. That year, he and the children were taken to Treblinka Extermination Camp and all murdered. This hero fought for the freedom and liberty of his orphans and gave his life in protest.

Goldszmit’s work is highly regarded, even if largely forgotten. UNESCO declared 1978–1979 the Year of Korczak to coincide with the Year of the Child and the centenary of his birth. Today, a national organization meets yearly to discuss his work and read his writings. The most remarkable outcome of his ideas was the ongoing influence he had on the eventual creation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or UNCRC. Ratified by the United Nations general assembly in 1989, Korczak’s ideas remain embedded within the UNCRC as a reminder that children have rights, can use those rights and can be accountable for the actions they take. This is indeed the exact kind of democratic action Dewey wrote about starting in the late 1930s.

This book defines democracy and suggests ways that it can be supported. More importantly, it uplifts youth to examine their potential role in working to end the deficit. There are three main parts in the book: The end of democracy deficit disorder, fighting democracy deficit disorder, and learning to challenge democracy deficit disorder.

Part I, The End of Democracy Deficit Disorder, is a summary of the situations facing children and youth worldwide today. The first chapter makes the case against the democracy deficit disorder, including understanding where it comes from, who it affects most, and why it is such a damning reality today. The next two chapters address the reality of adultism, bias toward adults, is examined in-depth, giving readers more than a passing glance at the framing construct for youth/adult relationships throughout society. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 reinforce the role of democracy as an organizing principle for our society, calling into account the actionable, practical necessity of democracy in every individual’s life, particularly the young.

In Part II, Fighting Democracy Deficit Disorder, the book provides a deep dive into what matters most to young people today, and explores the roles adults can play in curing the deficit. Deeply examining the perspectives of youth, this section provides pragmatic, actionable examples and positions the challenge of saving democracy in relationship to other great battles in the lives of children and youth. Ultimately, this section lays the foundation for the final part of the book.

Learning to Challenge Democracy Deficit Disorder is the third section of the book. It details how adults can meaningfully and substantially partner with young people as equitable partners in order to save democracy. Providing a useful typology of action, it also identifies where, when, and how young people are curing the deficit right now, along with showing where it can happen in the future. Finally, it positions this entire discussion in the realm of social change and education transformation, leaving the audience with the challenge of becoming active, wholistic actors rather than passive, forgetful readers.

This book is intended to reach a broad audience of young people and adults who are interested in doing more, but do not know how. It is meant to challenge the intransigence and seeming indifference of adults who maintain the status quo while complaining about the state of the world today. Finally, it seeks to inspire, motivate, and demand action. No matter what our response is to democracy deficit, we must push the entire conversation another step forward immediately, and waiting is no longer an option. This book charges readers to preserve, expand, and transform democracy by learning with young people and from young people for a future we will all share.


Young People and Democracy

To say that the world is suffering and in toil is an understatement. So many issues compete for attention and strive to be front and center on the world stage in order to find resolution, build possibilities, and transform the future. In the midst of all of this, though, is a bright hope that is rarely acknowledged. That hope is the positive, purposeful power of children and youth.

Young people everywhere are fighting blatant hatred against them because of their ages. They are challenging apathy toward them because of their race, gender, and sexual identities, and making active, engaged, empowered choices to secure freedom in this generation and beyond. They are doing all of this despite and because of the oppressive forces they face. They are doing all of this because of democracy.

This hope is evident throughout this book through myriad accounts of children and youth fighting to cure the democracy deficit disorder worldwide right now. It shows how young people are working without knowing or particularly caring that they are part of a global movement, planning and challenging, fighting and transforming the endless litany of problems facing them, their families, and their communities. Throughout these chapters, light is shown on media accounts of their actions that are tucked away on the internet, dissected in the academy, and ignored by politicians and pundits who do not value young people as humans, let alone as powerful agents of social change around the world today. Each chapter shows that this routine dismissal and silencing does not make what young people are doing any less impactful though. Instead, it makes their work even more powerful as it digs deeper and has more effect than anything previously acknowledged. This book is not merely philosophical either. Instead, it summarizes pragmatic, current action that moves readers from theory to practice with deliberation.


X, 258
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (July)
Meaningful democracy Youth engagement in democracy Adults as allies to young people Civic education Civics Democracy Youth Education Critical thinking Democracy building Childhood studies Active learning Social change Applied learning Democracy Deficit Disorder Learning Democracy with Young People Adam F.C. Fletcher J. Cynthia McDermott
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. X, 258 pp.

Biographical notes

Adam F.C. Fletcher (Author) J. Cynthia McDermott (Author)

Adam F.C. Fletcher is an internationally recognized expert in youth engagement, co-founder of the Freechild Institute and SoundOut.org, and author of more than a dozen books. J. Cynthia McDermott earned her Ed.D at Temple University and has received 3 Fulbright awards. Emeritus from Antioch University, her publications are related to democracy and Foxfire practices.


Title: Democracy Deficit Disorder