Are younger voters really the best defence against populism?

The fightback against right-wing populists across the US and Europe has focussed on the value of young voters. But the reality is more complex—and shows the scale of the challenge ahead

September 03, 2018
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“Migration is one reason. The economy is another.” It’s a quote that could be used to explain the election of Donald Trump, or the result of the EU referendum.

In fact, however, it referred to something else: the formation of Italy’s new government coalition.

The prevailing narrative has grouped these—and other—populist outbreaks as a singular, worrying, phenomenon. Popular themes have emerged in this discussion, not least the idea that older voters have opted for right-wing ideas at the expense of the young.

Yet in reality, young citizens in the United States and Italy have exactly opposite reactions to their governments. What’s more, their different responses reveal how the traditional narratives about populism risk being overly simplistic—allowing strains of social discontent that catalyze it to be improperly diagnosed, and continue to fester.

It’s certainly true that both parties in Italy’s new coalition, the Five Star (M5S) Movement and Lega Nord, have found success with the strategies that propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

The M5S, founded by a former comedian banned from Italian public television for back in 1986 for politically offensive jokes, Beppe Grillo, fashions itself an anti-establishment party. Lega, which formerly supported Silvio Berlusconi’s government, sparked the return of “Italy First!”.

The US president has, in turn, traded endless compliments with new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, declaring him the European leader he is “most closely aligned” with.

Yet, the Trump administration and the M5S/Lega coalition have different bases. In the US, Trump’s administration faces ardent opposition from the young—embodied by their mere 33 per cent approval rating of the president. Their votes are essential to Democratic hopes of a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms.

In Italy, however, over 60 per cent of millennials voted for a party in the Italian populist coalition. Lega’s popularity with young people in the south helped catapult the party from a regional group to a national powerhouse.

So, why have these populist movements generated such divergent reactions?

From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Trump claimed illegal immigration was an apocalyptic threat to the American people, famously proclaiming, “When Mexico sends its people… They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists… They’re taking our jobs.” This inflammatory language has followed him into the White House to inform policy.

Millennials, across party lines, fundamentally reject this. Trump’s rhetoric on immigration rings far too regressive for millennials who are more tolerant with regard to race, sexuality, and immigration.

When the president moved to revoke Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era programme protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, even two-thirds of the millennials who voted for him were opposed.

Yet where populist immigration rhetoric rings hollow to American millennials, it speaks to real fears for Italians.

When Matteo Salvini—deputy prime minister, leader of the Lega, and early supporter of Trump—invoked similar rhetoric to attack “tides of delinquents” taking advantage of Italy’s resources, he was met with millennial support.

Salvini’s anti-immigrant populism has gained traction with young people who hope it will be a solution to the unemployment epidemic.

While general Italian unemployment hovers at 10 per cent, youth unemployment is around 32 per cent. (Young people in the south are particularly likely to suffer.) Over 68 per cent of Italian millennials believe there are too many immigrants in the country.

It is not impossible to imagine why a young Sicilian, burdened with unemployment as high as 57 per cent, might be intrigued by Salvini’s harsh words: “enough of Sicily being the refugee camp of Europe… There is not enough housing for Italians, let alone for the half the continent of Africa.”

In the US, things are different, with Trump’s niche brand of Republican-populism flying in the face of millennials’ economic needs.

While youth unemployment in the US also sits higher than the national average—8.6 per cent to 3.9 per cent—it is not enough to qualify as the domestic emergency it has become in Italy, where the staggering unemployment has all but stunted a generation’s ascent into adulthood-- over 65 per cent of Italians aged 18 to 34 years old still lives at home, the highest figure of any European nation. Only half as many American millennials share that status.

Olivia Bercow, press secretary for NextGen America, told me, “One issue that young people resoundingly rally around, not matter what state, is the prohibitively high cost of college.”

Affordable college tuition has been, both historically and recently, a rallying point for Democrats—an ideal reinvigorated by Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 presidential campaign was wildly popular with young voters.

In the US, millennials will soon surpass Baby Boomers as the largest political constituency. And while millennials are notorious for not actually voting, Bercow hoped the “realisation that, as the largest voting bloc in the United States, they have enormous power to reshape this country,” coupled with a “deep opposition to President Trump” will bring them to the polls.

Any politician—American, Italian, or otherwise—hoping to contain and beat back this recent wave of populism must look past generalized analyses that use the same diagnosis for each outbreak. Citing immigration and economic concerns is not enough. Instead, we must understand the specific causes of each iteration of populism if we are to stop its spread.

A look to how the young, as both a powerful electorate and the future of the nation, vote, and why, provides an essential starting point.

Politicians looking to take back their governments from populism better take heed and start providing real solutions to the needs of young people—or grapple with their rather volatile political allegiances.