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 aheadby Anita Riotta / September 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
“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…