Are the Kids All Right?

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | Jun 7th, 2024

Fed up with endemic corruption, inequality, and dysfunctional politics, many young people across the West are drawn to far-right politics. If center-left and progressive parties cannot win back the youth vote, extremists like Donald Trump could get their chance to destroy the norms and institutions that allow democracy to function.

NEW YORK – Why are so many young people attracted to far-right politics? Polls show that 36% of French people aged 18-24 support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, while roughly 31% in the Netherlands back Geert Wilders’s nationalist, anti-immigration Party for Freedom. Similarly, a recent poll finds that 26% of Americans aged 18-29 prefer former US President Donald Trump over the incumbent Joe Biden.

While these figures do not reflect the views of most young people, they are nonetheless striking and somewhat counterintuitive. After all, for at least four decades following the end of World War II, youth was synonymous with being on the left, wanting to change the world for the better, and fighting for an open, diverse, and egalitarian society where fascism could never rise again. By contrast, the far-right was associated with disheveled older men who exuded a musty odor of the brown or black shirts they might have previously worn.

This began to change in the 1990s. By then, many of the old extremists had died, and center-left parties were losing their youthful idealism. The Soviet Union had lost the Cold War, and some of the enthusiasm for collective improvement may have faded with it.

Meanwhile, both conservative and center-left parties fell under the sway of neoliberalism. In 1998, Peter Mandelson, the British Labour Party’s spokesman under then-Prime Minister Tony Blairfamously said that he would be “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich” as long as they paid their taxes.”

Mandelson’s statement, which he later regretted, reflected a broader political shift. Center-left parties had become increasingly associated with urban elites who benefited from a globalized economy in which immigrants provided cheap labor and well-educated cosmopolitans could seek financial profit or intellectual stimulation wherever they desired. These elites came to be derided as the “people from nowhere” by those who felt ignored, despised, and left behind by globalization.

Many of these disaffected voters had previously supported left-wing parties with historical ties to the trade-union movement, such as Labour in the United Kingdom and the Democratic Party in the United States. Now, they felt excluded by both pro-business conservatives and the neoliberal center-left.

A new generation of right-wing populists rushed to fill the political vacuum, promising to fight for the disenfranchised against a corrupt globalist elite that supposedly allowed immigrants to take jobs from native-born workers. The late Austrian firebrand Jörg Haider, Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and her deputy, Matteo Salvini, are prime examples of this new breed of politicians. Slick operators in sharp suits, with a talent to amuse, they stoke anger and resentment. Some of them even flirt with fascist and Nazi symbols, pushing the boundaries of postwar taboos.

Though significantly older, Trump is cut from the same cloth. While he may not personally have written the reference to a “unified Reich” that appeared in a video he recently shared, Trump has long embraced the rhetoric of far-right radicals, offering a fantasy of America’s past greatness and promising to keep out immigrants who are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Such promises are bound to appeal to some young people for the same reasons that left-wing ideals once did. As an 18-year-old German recently told the Financial Times, he intends to vote for Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in this week’s European Parliament elections because the far-right party offers a “clean break with a gloomy present and a bright vision of the future.”

Silver-tongued right-wing extremists might also attract young men who think it is cool to break contemporary social taboos related to masculine domination and privilege. But whatever the appeal, it has nothing to do with conservatism. Far-right leaders like Trump, Wilders, and Salvini are not conservatives – their primary goal is to disrupt and destroy.

Conservatism is now more on the other side. Standing up against the rising tide of radical populism are veteran politicians like Biden who are trying to preserve the established institutions of liberal democracy: judicial independence, a free press, and fair elections. Building or repairing these institutions after the catastrophes of World War II was once a progressive project. Today, protecting these institutions against those who wish to destroy them and seize every opportunity to attack the judges, legislators, and citizens upholding them is quite literally a conservative endeavor.

To young people excited by the prospect of radical change, the 81-year-old Biden may seem like a relic of the past, clinging to an obsolete system. One could argue, as I would, that incremental democratic change is preferable to smashing the existing order, but such a message is unlikely to draw restless young people back to established center-left parties. While Biden’s predecessor, Barack Obama, did manage to do just that for a while, he ultimately disappointed many of his younger supporters by not being radical enough.

Trump does not have to convince many young people to vote for him. If enough of them refuse to vote for Biden, either because he is too old, too conservative, or too pro-Israel, Trump could win November’s presidential election. If elected, he will continue to shatter the norms and wreck the institutions that allow democracy to function.

Future generations might have to work hard to undo the damage, but perhaps this will bring a new impetus for youthful enthusiasm to rebuild the world to be a better place. One can only hope they will succeed.

Ian Buruma: Is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance,Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and BrexitThe Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II, and, most recently, Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah (Yale University Press, 2024).

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