Right-Wing Populists Are Running Out of Time
Politics are so different in Europe and in the U.S. that analogies usually look contrived. Yet the demographics of those who support right-wing populists are strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. And these demographics are likely to be the reason why the populist right, which appears to be on the rise, is actually peaking. If it doesn't win any major electoral victories in the next few years, it will have to slink off to the fringe.
Last Sunday, Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party lost the Austrian presidential election despite winning the first round and leading in the polls up to election day. He ran again a generic progressive candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, who was technically and independent but was backed by the Green Party. By election day, he was also running against everyone else who didn't want the far right, Hofer rejects, to win. The demographics of his voters in the run-off with van der Bellen are similar to those of Donald Trump's in the race against Hillary Clinton:
Both Trump and Hofer command majorities among men but not among women, among less-educated voters but not among more-educated ones, and both do better with the over-50 crowd than with millennials.
Based on the Austrian election results and on recent U.S. polling data, Trump and Hofer do well in rural areas and small towns, but they lose in the big cities.
Speculating why nativist, politically incorrect politicians appeal to roughly the same demographic base everywhere is fruitless. The reasons could be economic (the effects of globalization and the technological revolution), purely cultural (some areas are historically more xenophobic than others) or attitudinal (women tend to be less inclined toward simple, hard-line solutions than men do). Whatever the underlying cause, the demographics suggest that if the right-wing populists don't win now, it will be too late.
Both in the U.S. and in Europe, women make up more than half of the total population. In the U.S., women are also more likely to turn out to vote, while in Europe gender participation rates vary from one country to another.
Millennials are taking over as the biggest voting generation both in the U.S. and in Europe, though at the moment they are underrepresented at the polls.
On both sides of the Atlantic, urbanization is the long-term trend. Core cities are growing faster than rural areas and suburbs, and this tendency will continue at least until 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
In Europe, the college enrollment rare is growing steadily. In the U.S., it took a dip in recent years, but is far higher than in the European Union.
A political philosophy and style that fails to impress the faster-growing demographic but endears itself to the slower-growing ones isn't exactly doomed. At least in Europe, with its multi-party systems, charismatic right-wing populists will be around for a long time, winning some representation for their voters. And mainstream parties have grown so sclerotic that their natural voters are turned off. But winning big -- taking over a country's government -- will get harder and harder as these trends progress. Now, surprises are still possible: Hofer only lost by 31,000 votes, and some polls predict a close race between Trump and Clinton.
Of course, some young, urban, female, college-educated voters do support politicians such as Trump and Hofer or else they wouldn't be as close to the political summit in their respective countries. Yet these outliers on the right are like poker players bleeding chips: Each time the cards are dealt, they have less power to play aggressively and win big. In 2020, they will be a step further from victory than they are today, and in 2024, yet another step further.
The populist left doesn't have that problem. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain appeal to young people, women, college graduates and urbanites. And while Picketty may not be for everyone, they don't have the xenophobic baggage that alienates some mainstream voters who are in the market for a party to support.
Just like mainstream parties, which appear to have lost much of their political identity in decades of running their countries, populists on the right need to find ways to fit their message to the changing demographics. It's not easy to do, though, without turning into one of those "establishment" parties that voters have been rejecting.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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