Contrary to conventional wisdom, some countries are seeing a surge in conservative politics among young voters. Liam Glen writes on the complexity of political generations.
The recent European Parliament elections were a showdown between right-wing nationalists and various opposing factions. The populists made gains, but fell short of expectations.
In the aftermath, some commentators are looking at young voters as a sign of a progressive, integrated future for Europe. Others, however, note that some of those same voters are in fact taking a turn to the right.
Far-right parties’ outreach through flashy campaigns and social media posts has been widely reported. In many cases, they have succeeded in getting a large share of the youth vote.
The assumption that the young lean further to the left than the old has existed for about as long as the left-right political spectrum itself. It was the nineteenth century French monarchist François Guizot who first said “not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”
A closer look at the data, however, reveals a more complex truth.
The New Counterculture?
In the US, the appeal of the far-right among Generation Z came to prominence after the 2016 presidential election. The media obsessed over the racist, ultranationalist “alt-right,” along with other conservative movements followed by large numbers of teenagers on social media.
Anyone familiar with internet politics in the Anglosphere knows some of the names. They range from far-right conspiracy theorists like Lauren Southern and Paul Joseph Watson, to the Wunderkinder of mainstream conservatism like Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren, to self-proclaimed classical liberals like Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson.
There is great variation between them, but they all share a worldview vehemently opposed to anything that they perceive as political correctness. And all of them boast hundreds of thousands of online followers.
In this crowd, it is a widespread belief that Millennials may be “Generation Snowflake,” but Generation Z is that of right-wing nationalism. As Paul Joseph Watson likes to say, “conservatism is the new counterculture.”
In the US, however, this is simply a vocal minority. Generation Z is just as liberal as the Millennials. Even those who identify as Republicans tend to have views further to the left than their older counterparts.
So far, the conventional wisdom that young people are more liberal has held up in the US and much of Western Europe. But the trend does not apply everywhere.
In Brazil, for instance, support for Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election was relatively consistent across age groups.
More striking are cases like Israel and Hungary. In these countries, the relationship between age and ideology is the inverse of that in the US. Young voters are far more likely than the old to choose right-wing nationalists.
Ironically, the original leftist counterculture of the 1960s and 70s was itself a vocal minority of students and activists. Throughout the Vietnam War, Americans under 30 were the least likely age group to oppose the conflict.
The relationship between age and politics varies across country and time period. Radical students who turn to the right with age have been around since Revolutionary France, but they do not necessarily reflect all of their peers.
This fits with what public opinion researchers know about generations. Experiences like World War II, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the 2008 financial crash, and the ongoing refugee crisis give certain “age cohorts” a unique outlook on life.
Sometimes we can infer reasons that one generation grows up a certain way. Maybe young Israelis turned to the right after growing up during the Second Intifada. Surely, the popularity of nationalism in Hungary and other Eastern European countries has something to do with the fall of communism. But it is hard to be certain.
At times, explanations for generational differences can be contradictory. Young Hungarians vote for the far-right Jobbik because they hunger for change and want to disrupt the status quo. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Poland vote conservative out of a desire for stability.
Interpreting the reasons for generational differences can be problematic if our only evidence is anecdotal. Looking at the most visible and obvious examples leads to the same type of flawed analysis that would make one think that the Baby Boomers were all hippies, or that Generation Z all listen to Ben Shapiro.
Though, a relatively predictable indicator can be found in demographics. An increasing number of Israelis are being born to the orthodox Haredi sect, which partially explains the young generation’s conservatism.
Similarly, the leftist leanings of American youth may come from their diversity. The numbers vary from survey to survey, but one exit poll reported that while only 37 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted for Donald Trump in 2016, 48 percent of whites in that age group voted for him.
Facts like these can tell us part of the story about generational politics. Others are as of yet unknown to researchers.
With the incomplete picture that we have, must at least recognize that our preconceived notions do not always lead to the right answer. Above all, the variability of generational politics should challenge our assumption that history always flows in a certain direction, for better or worse.