Thousands of young voters are not taking the expected path (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)


Why young voters are turning to the populist-right


Whenever things look dire for the left, there is always one comforting thought: “If we can mobilise the young voters, all will be well.” This is a law of politics which has held for decades across Western democracies. Young people vote for centre to Left parties, and older folks vote for conservatives.

This was why there was such umbrage over 2016’s Brexit referendum. Those under 18 were not allowed to vote and therefore, the argumentation went, their rights were being infringed as they would have to live with the decision-making of the old. But the past few years, and particularly the recent European Parliamentary elections, events have indicated that young voters are increasingly looking to the populist-right.

In 2019, the populist-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won just 5 per cent of the youth vote. This year, that number jumped to 16 per cent.

The leader of France’s main populist-right party National Rally (RN), Jordan Bardella, is a star amongst young voters, and polls taken before the European Parliamentary elections found one-third of voters aged 18 to 24 would be voting for the RN, no different from the population at large.  A Les Echos poll taken the same day as the elections found that the RN was effectively tied with the populist-left party list of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

In Portugal’s March parliamentary election, the populist-right Chega party came in second among the youth vote, after the centre-right.

The pattern is the same across the Atlantic. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won that age group was in the 1980s, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush won essentially as a third term of ultra-popular President Ronald Reagan.

But polling today shows that not only has young voters’ support for Democrat nominee and President Joe Biden slipped, but that Republican nominee and former President Donald Trump may even have a shot at winning that group.

Why has there been such a definitive switch across the entirety of the West? Why are young voters not just turning away from incumbent parties, but away from establishment parties entirely, toward populist-right parties which, by their own account, want to overturn the systems with which those same voters were raised? 

There have been many theories. Establishmentarians, who often depend on victorious establishment parties and ideas for their incomes, are quick to portray young voters are being blasted with misinformation, often Russian or Chinese.

Social media like TikTok and Instagram are where the trouble lies, according to these folks. That is the only way that young Western voters could be willing to risk throwing away 30 years of a post-Cold War period of peace and economic growth, so the thinking goes.

But it has always been cowardly, and a bit of a projection, to use the explanation, “We lost because voters are gullible and/or stupid.”

Cowardly because it allows the user to ignore any errors they may have made, and a projection because, well, everyone uses social media. Everyone sees information, disinformation, misinformation, or otherwise. It is highly unlikely that only those who vote for populists have been suckered by it, while the all-seeing eyes of centrist voters have steered clear.

So then where does the rise of youth support for the populist-right come from? We should start by looking at historical populism.

The term itself comes from the American Populist Party (sometimes called “People’s Party”) which arose in the 1870s. Primarily agrarian, it was fuelled by farmers discontented with a government which was focusing more on industrialisation than traditional agriculture. The first presidential populist in the US, President Andrew Jackson, rose on a wave of discontent of voters who felt that the country was not living up to the democratic ideals espoused in the Constitution.

And of course, Donald Trump, a self-declared populist, won in 2016.

In Europe, populist-right parties have been successful at various points throughout history. Most recently, of course, they have been successful in the last ten years, with populists winning elections or holding power in Italy, Austria, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Finland, and more. In many of those elections, they were propelled by younger voters.

What do these all have in common? They all, every single situation, arose out of discontent with governing institutions.

In Europe, all came on the back of the migrant crisis, in which governing institutions utterly failed to protect their people from what was a wave of millions of migrants.

But they also – and this is frequently missed by analysts – came after major financial crises. The current waves in Europe began in 2015, the same year as the migrant crisis, but also only just about half a decade after the late 2000s Great Recession. In the U.S. that same Great Recession powered the left-wing “Occupy” and right-wing “Tea Party” movements, which both began as economically-concerned movements, only becoming primarily culture-driven by the mid-2010s. 

Older folks may have savings to ride out economic storms, and they grew up with strong societal institutions – church, a sense of community – to which they were tethered. Plus, they do not need to fear war so much. No one drafts 50-year-olds.

But Gen Z is arguably the most untethered generation ever. In developed countries, young people feel more lonely than any other age group, and polls show they are also the most disillusioned.

There is a storm of information on social media and around them: crumbling governing institutions, nearly-gone social institutions. Establishmentarians and their professors are telling them their own truths are all legitimate, that there is no such thing as one truth – but those same young folks do not even know what their own truths are to begin with.

They are being told that things are actually great. President Barack Obama spent the entirety of the 2016 election trying to convince people things were good, as President Joe Biden is trying now.

French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to save the future of his movement, is doing the same. “We have results,” he recently told voters, something which could have been said by any establishment government. But those results – French unemployment which is closer to 10 per cent than 0 per cent, rising crimes in Germany driven by migration, a full-scale war on the borders of the EU – are surely not inspiring to young people.

What is 30 years of post-Cold War peace for the young if it has led to a bleeding of jobs, a loss of cultural identity, war, and a lack of social cohesion?

And then into this storm of uncertainty steps the populist-right, offering something to cling onto: certainty. “There is truth. Yes, things are bad, but our nations were once great, before you were here. We can re-create that greatness. You can be a part of something greater than yourself. We can point to the problems, and we have solutions for those problems.”

In short, the question should not be “Why are young voters turning populist-right?” It should be, “Why wouldn’t they?”