Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), takes a selfie with supporters during a rally as part of the campaign for general elections. Italians head to the polls for general elections on September 25. Picture Credit: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

The kids are alt-right

Outside the Anglosphere, right-wing populism is a youth movement

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If there is one received wisdom imbibed equally by Left and Right it is that the kids are all woke. In Britain and the USA, support for left-wing parties correlates almost precisely with youth. 

It was not always thus — young people were a decisive factor in electing Margaret Thatcher. But the dramatic left-ward shift of the youth vote encourages many left-liberals to believe that demographics are destiny and that time will bring the unstoppable triumph of progressive values. 

Young supporters of Meloni holding Italian flags during a rally

One problem with this sweeping assumption is that it is parochially Anglocentric. In Europe, nationalism is primarily a youth movement, and a rapidly growing one at that. In Italy, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria, populist right-wing parties are not only in power, but enjoy their strongest support from younger voters. In France and Spain, the youth have abandoned centrist parties and now vote for either the far-left, or the far-right — the majority of French under-30s voted either for Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017. 

In Finland, Austria, Romania, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the greatest growth for nationalist and far-right parties has been among younger voters. The pattern isn’t repeated in every country, but it is incredibly widespread. Even where nationalism hasn’t taken hold of young voters, traditional parties are in trouble. In Germany, younger people are increasingly likely to vote for the Greens and the libertarian Free Democratic Party. Meanwhile, in the 2021 Saxony-Anhalt state election, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) came top amongst voters under 30. 

European young people are far less likely to trust institutions

These trends are at odds with the core assumptions of political analysis in the English-speaking world. For one thing, European youth is, on average, less religious, more socially liberal on questions of sex and sexuality, and less likely to be married or have children than previous generations. Many supporters of parties branded as “far-right” or “nativist” are gay people, feminists or ethnic minorities. Moreover, while old age and poorer education are predictors for nationalist populism in the Anglosphere, voters for Spain’s right-wing Vox party are more likely to be young, well-off and university-educated. 

The backdrop is a volatility in youth politics in an age of social media and rapid social change. Libertarian and socialist parties have also seen youth surges, and young people are more likely to vote for new parties in general, with many of the most successful nationalist parties being literally “young” movements which can plausibly claim to be outsiders to mainstream politics. 

They have also made huge gains by spending more time and effort appealing to young people than incumbent politicians. Nationalist parties make heavy and intelligent use of social media, as well as organising social events such as Vox’s under-25 pub nights and the Belgian nationalist Vlaams Belang’s family-focused Spring park party which included face-painting, bouncy castles and a bookstand selling The Kidnapping of Europe.

Their candidates themselves are often young. In 2019, the leader of the French far-right National Rally slate for the European Parliament elections was 23, the lead candidate for the Danish People’s Party was 29 and the chief spokesman (and now parliamentarian) for Vox was 27. Many of them have been campaigning since their teens and are often savvy media performers. 

The openness of young people to all forms of populist and insurgent movements, even when they have opposing ideologies, reflects another vital piece of the puzzle: European young people are far less likely to trust institutions, feel represented in mainstream politics or feel confident in their economic future. But this does not explain the highly differential success of Right versus Left populism.

Podemos in Spain and Mélanchon in France, represent a still-forceful far left, but similar movements have dwindled elsewhere. In Greece, where Syriza seemed to presage a socialist dawn, a majority of young Greeks now identify as right-wing. Support for the far-right Golden Dawn is also at its highest amongst the younger generation. 

Syriza’s fall is part of a wider story of the decline of left-wing anti-globalisation movements. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as centrist parties opened borders to the free flow of labour and capital and ambitious international free trade deals were signed, resistance came largely from the far left. But after the 2008 crash, when many saw their arguments vindicated, the movement started to fall apart, with the “Occupy” movement collapsing amidst bitter arguments over race and identity. 

The Left’s new obsession with “anti-racism” and individualism saw both class politics and anti-globalisation fall away. Right-wing populist movements far more coherently linked the flow of global capital with the mass movement of people, and framed both as an attack on national identity.

Where the Left failed, the nationalist Right succeeded in capitalising on young Europe’s anger. In Italy, a 2021 poll showed 22 per cent of 18-21-year-olds supporting the populist right-wing party, Lega, and 23 per cent backing Giorgia Meloni’s national-conservative Brothers of Italy, making young Italians amongst the most nationalist in Europe. Young Italians are apparently socially liberal, yet back the strongly socially-conservative Italian Right. Why? 

Italian youth unemployment hit 47 per cent in 2014, and continues to hover around 30 per cent. Anger has focused on international finance for its role in causing the 2008 crash and the Eurozone’s imposition of austerity measures in Italy which saw a “technocratic” government imposed on the country. It was also Italy that bore the brunt of the 2015 migration crisis and was forced to shoulder much of the expense of Mediterranean search and rescue operations.

Young people are angry with the EU, globalisation, and Italy’s own entrenched political classes. A 2020 poll suggested that half of young people cited an old and closed-minded society as the main barrier to their ambitions. 

Meloni’s nationalism is profoundly linked to anti-colonialism

It is an emotion surely not alien to Giorgia Meloni herself, who was abandoned by her communist father, a convicted drug trafficker, at the age of one. Growing up in a poor Roman neighbourhood, she joined the youth wing of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement at the age of 15. A natural campaigner and politician, she shot up the ranks — and in Italy’s coalitional politics ended up as Minister for Youth under Silvio Berlusconi in 2008, at the age of 31, just as the prospects of young Italians were about to fall off a cliff. In 2012, critical of 75-year-old Berlusconi’s leadership, she formed the Brothers of Italy. 

Now Prime Minister of Italy, she embodies a generation of young people who feel abandoned and limited by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. And though Anglo-Saxon journalists have tended to read her as a figure of conservative reaction, they fail to understand her appeal, or the very different terms of Italian society. 

For instance, Meloni’s nationalism is profoundly linked to anti-colonialism. As a minister under Berlusconi, she encouraged Italian athletes to boycott the Beijing Olympics over China’s colonisation of Tibet. In Italy, where economic policy has been subordinated to the Eurozone and the currency markets, the message resonates. In a viral video she responded to an attack by Emmanuel Macron on her migration policy by pointing to France’s own neo-colonial policies in Northern Africa, including the CFA, the French-dominated currency zone that operates in Francophone Africa. 

And for all her fierce rhetoric about the family and the LGBT lobby, Meloni bears little relation to the American religious right. She was raised by a single mother along with her sister, and lives unmarried with her partner and child. Her Minister for Family is Eugenia Roccella, a former socialist and “conservative feminist”. Meloni’s recent bill to ban Italians travelling abroad for surrogacy was framed in the terms of a new right-populist feminism, denouncing “procreative tourism” and calling women “the first victims of gender ideology”.

The wildfire success of this new kind of conservatism is precisely its ability to unite young Christians, fervent nationalists and concerned liberals. With liberalism having broken with traditional culture and socialism unmoored from its once-strong critique of globalisation, a new hybrid political space has opened up. 

An astonishing 46 per cent agreed that “having the army rule would be a good way of governing this country”

Unlike the populist Right in the Anglosphere, it has made a break with free market capitalism. Stubbornly post-ideological, Italy’s new national populism is neither committed to state ownership of the means of production, nor does it show any hesitation about exerting state power to promote the common good or secure national interests. 

For decades an Anglosphere interpretation of the West as embodying the forefront of world history has pictured Europe as a peninsula of modernity, a social democracy where history no longer happens. 

But having endured more than two decades of having its borders opened to unprecedented migration, and its economies exposed to the effects of an unyielding form of global capitalism — during which living standards have plateaued — many Europeans no longer seem so keen on the destiny prescribed them. Could countries like Italy, Poland and Hungary be the wave of the future? 

Nationalist movements in Europe are denounced as extreme, racist, and fascist, but little thought is given to what is driving them. Issues such as declining birth rates, the collapse of economic opportunity for the young, unprecedented levels of migration, new frontiers in biotechnology, and the deindustrialisation of the West are not seriously addressed by mainstream political parties. 

Nor should the liberals of the English-speaking world be complacent about its invincibly progressive youth. Delve deeper into the polling on social liberal attitudes and you find that political liberalism among most young Britons is not worth the label. A 2022 report from the UK think tank Onward found a decline in support for democracy among the young, with 61 per cent of 18-34 year olds agreeing that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections would be a good way of governing this country”. An astonishing 46 per cent agreed that “having the army rule would be a good way of governing this country”. By contrast, only 29 per cent of over-55s would support a strongman leader, and only 13 per cent are up for the smack of firm military rule.

That is not to say the new nationalism has all the answers — far from it. While having powerfully consistent stories to tell about how we got here, they have far less coherent accounts of what to do about it. Securing borders and giving more money to families is certainly popular, but it’s unclear how it can reverse the power of international finance, or challenge the growing industrial and military might of autocratic governments in Eurasia. 

Young Europeans evidently have an appetite for a more communitarian politics, but it’s unclear how nationalist governments intend to reverse the decline of wages, restore organised labour, and revive a civil society devastated by the internet, individualism and rapid social change. No less of a challenge is how far they will be able to overcome financially and institutionally-entrenched vested interests without simply lapsing into the techno-deregulatory model of “economic disruption” with its decidedly uncertain outcomes.

But for all these looming problems, national conservative and populist right-wing parties have harnessed a strain of anger and a changing generational mood that is unlikely to be a passing fashion. Commentary and analysis in the English-speaking world needs to go beyond lofty dismissal of this trend in European politics and to better comprehend the forces driving it. 

Sooner or later, traditional parties will have to address the problems of the age of globalisation — or they will be replaced with those who will. 

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