Elections

The Populist Wave Hasn't Crested Yet

Youth globally are still drawn to extremes.

The future of democracy.

Photographer: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

At a victory rally for France’s young new President Emmanuel Macron outside the Louvre last week, I was struck by the generational gap between the candidate and his most animated supporters. Most younger people in the crowd looked relieved but far from overjoyed; the most visibly enthusiastic among them were of West African or Arab descent. And when Macron took the stage and began to speak, it was the older heads in the crowd that nodded at his words.

I remember, in 2002, watching French students my age demonstrate against right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of this year’s losing candidate, Marine Le Pen: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist,” they chanted, intending to turn out in numbers to vote for the corruption-accused Jacques Chirac. Today, their equivalents chant “neither the banker nor the racist.” From “vote” to don’t -- in just 15 years.

QuickTake Populism

Liberals worldwide seem to have concluded, with a collective sigh of relief, that Macron’s emphatic victory is a sign that the global “populist” wave has peaked, and that time is on their side. Such optimism is premature. The weakness of Macron’s appeal -- and strength of Le Pen’s -- among many young French voters is further evidence of a disquieting truth: In many parts of the world, the young may simply care less about liberal democratic values than they once did.

True, young Britons largely voted against the idea of leaving the European Union and American youth overwhelmingly rejected Donald Trump’s candidacy -- although he may have won because not enough of them cared enough to turn out against him. And there are specific reasons why French youth might be angry: Youth unemployment is notoriously high, for example.

But, like all “economic anxiety” explanations for a turn to radicalism, this one is incomplete. After all, while youth unemployment is at 23 percent today, it was only a few percentage points lower in 2002, when French youth enthusiastically turned out against Le Pen’s father.

The fact is, there's no reason to assume that younger, first-time voters will become a bulwark for liberal, centrist politics against a populist upsurge. A widely quoted paper last year by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk examined data from the World Values Survey and concluded:

Back in 1995, for example, only 16 percent of Americans born in the 1970s (then in their late teens or early twenties) believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country. Twenty years later, the number of “antidemocrats” in this same generational cohort had increased by around 4 percentage points, to 20 percent. The next cohort -- comprising those born in the 1980s -- is even more antidemocratic: In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country.

Survey results from the world’s largest democracy are no more comforting. New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies surveyed Indians between 15 and 34 last year and came out with some numbers that should depress liberals everywhere. A majority of those surveyed wanted to ban films that “hurt religious sentiments”; 24 percent would be unhappy living next to someone of African descent; 43 percent believed men were better leaders; only four percent married outside their caste. And, as it happened, about 60 percent said India needed “a strong leader who doesn't need to bother about winning elections.”

In fact, political scientists and survey-takers have been warning for some time that we shouldn’t assume that young voters will usher in a new age of social and political moderation. Some have pointed out that millennials are more extreme than previous generations; others found nearly a quarter of young French people thought only a revolution could fix things, up from seven percent in 1990. And, of course, as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has pointed out, 42 percent of young Americans surveyed by Pew said socialism was better than capitalism -- even though only 16 percent could define it.

Nationalism and grievance are not exclusive to the old. In fact, in many countries, older generations have lived through darker and more illiberal times, and are thus more likely to understand the dangers of giving in to the politics of grievance that give birth to populism. We must accept that younger people seeking to find a place for themselves in a world they feel doesn't recognize their desires are as likely, perhaps more, to sustain illiberal populism as their parents or older siblings.

Ultimately, the aura of inevitability that liberalism has chosen to surround itself with over the past few decades may be its worst enemy. Too many liberals will sit back after seeing a victory like Macron’s and believe that a natural order has been restored, not appreciating how many young people resent such smugness. Liberalism is not a default option; it has to be fought for, generation after generation. Perhaps this one more than most.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mihir Sharma at m.s.sharma@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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