Will millennials save the West?
Many commentators seem confident that the answer is yes — that young people’s left-leaning values will be a moderating influence on their insular, xenophobic, right-wing parents. But this complacency may be misplaced.
Young people — or at least a large swath of them — do appear to be growing more left-wing. On several key metrics, though, they also appear to be growing more illiberal, and more radical.
In Britain, young voters showed up en masse last week to help crack the Conservative Party’s comfortable majority in Parliament. Newspapers hailed the “youthquake,” in which they exacted revenge upon the fusty, nationalistic elders who’d chosen to bolt the European Union.
About 6 in 10 voters under 35 reported voting for the leftist Labour Party, which opposed Brexit last year and more recently wooed young people with promises of free college, higher taxes on the wealthy and greater spending on health care. Just a quarter of this age bracket voted Tory.
The numbers were roughly the reverse for voters over 65.
An election day poll found other huge gaps between older and younger voters on a range of questions signaling left-wing values and progressivism (such as attitudes toward feminism, environmentalism and the Internet), as political scientist Pippa Norris noted recently.
These trends have been compared with those in the United States, where millennials are also supposed to be the last bulwark against undemocratic Trumpian values.
After all, we came of age during the Great Recession and its aftermath. This has shaped our worldview and made us more skeptical of unfettered capitalism and the “establishment.” Hence the Bernie bromance, which also came with promises of free college, higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous government health care.
Here in France, many of the already traditionally leftist young have recently drifted further leftward, too. In the first-round presidential elections in the spring, a plurality of the youngest voters chose far-left, Communist-allied Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In second, however, was the far-right candidate: Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe National Front party, who champions “law and order” and “economic patriotism.” In fact, Le Pen has stronger support among the very young than the very old. (In the subsequent runoff election, Le Pen did about as well among the young as she did among voters overall.)
“In the 1990s, the voters of the National Front were first of all elderly,” says Stéphane Wahnich, a political science professor at Université Paris-Est Créteil. Today, he says, the most enthusiastic National Front members are far and away those under 30.
French youths have been increasingly drawn to extremes, he says, because they have little economic mobility and few job opportunities. Additionally, the bogeymen of generations past — Nazism, communism — seem less alarming to a cohort so far removed from World War II and the Cold War.
“Therefore to vote for political parties that are ideologically close to these sensibilities poses fewer and fewer problems because many do not make the link,” he says.
The French case has parallels with other Western democracies.
As I have written before, research by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk based on the World Values Survey has found that both Americans and Europeans have become more distrusting of their political institutions, more cynical about the worth of democracy and liberal democratic values, and more politically extreme over time.
This is especially true of millennials.
In fact, millennials are the most politically radical generation ever recorded by the World Values Survey, as measured by whether respondents place themselves as either a 1 or a 10 on a 1-10 left-right scale.
In economic extremis for years, we have now gone to extremes.
Perhaps what many have been mistaking for growing progressivism among millennials in Britain and the United States is merely the lefty flavor of the populism to which the young, even more than the old, are increasingly drawn.
Arguably, the most salient characteristic of the lefty candidates whom millennials idolize is not so much their leftiness, but their anti-establishment, at times barn-burning populism. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders railed against globalization nearly as much as Donald Trump did. His millennial-beloved British analogue, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, espouses far nuttier and more troubling beliefs (including past praise of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Moammar Gaddafi).
As Mounk has suggested, the proper way we should perhaps think about political divides going forward is not so much left vs. right or liberal vs. conservative. Rather, it’s something more akin to belief in a closed society vs. an open one, nationalism vs. internationalism.
The jury is out on where my generation’s views will land, but defenders of the West might want to start working on Plan B.