How Gen Z is driving the populist pushback

How Gen Z is driving the populist pushback

The youth of Europe have more reason than most to rebel against the woke orthodoxies of their elders.

Lauren Smith

Topics Politics UK World

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Populism was supposed to be the preserve of the old, uneducated and unenlightened. Apparently, it was for ‘gammons’, your xenophobic uncle and the ‘left behind’ of deindustrialised towns, bitter that the world has changed beyond their recognition. The results of last week’s European elections have shattered that myth.

Right-wing, populist and Eurosceptic parties surged to new heights, especially in the biggest and most powerful EU member states. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) shot to first place with 31 per cent of the vote. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party came second, winning almost 16 per cent. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s ruling Brothers of Italy took the lead with 28 per cent. Even in Belgium, the heart of the EU, Flemish Interest, a right-wing Flemish-nationalist party, topped the polls with 14 per cent. Most striking of all, much of this populist wave was propelled by the young.

Indeed, in almost every country where right-populism is on the rise, the youth is a driving force behind it. In Germany, the AfD was the favoured party of 16 per cent of voters under 24 – coming in second only to the centre-right Christian Democrats. In Belgium, Flemish Interest was by far the most popular party with men from Generation Z (those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s), although young women favour the Green Party. No such gender divide exists in France, however, where around a third of Gen Z men and women threw their support behind RN in equal measure.

This trend was becoming apparent before the EU elections, too. Last year, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) claimed a shock victory in the Dutch General Election. Not only did the right-wing PVV become the largest party in the Dutch parliament, it also became the most popular party with voters under 34. In fact, the PVV’s share of the youth vote shot up from seven per cent to 17 per cent in the space of just two years. The picture was similar in Sweden a year earlier, when the right-wing Sweden Democrats reached new heights in the polls, taking 22 per cent of the under-21 vote.

Even in Brexit Britain, where we are repeatedly told that the young are fanatical Europhiles, there are stirrings of a similar revolt. While a Labour landslide victory seems all but certain in July, this otherwise dull General Election may well throw up a few surprises. Some polls show Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s Reform UK battling neck-and-neck against the Liberal Democrats for second place among 18- to 24-year-olds – behind Labour but ahead of the Green Party.

This was not part of the script, to put it mildly. For years now, the establishment has celebrated today’s young as a uniquely ‘progressive’ generation – as more ‘aware’ of environmental problems, more ‘sensitive’ to racial and gender issues. They were usually talked of as a stage army for a slate of woke-ish, faux-left and green causes. Of course, this was always something of a caricature. Not every teen was out playing truant with Greta or experimenting with their pronouns. Yet now it seems that this same supposedly woke generation is determined to break out of this political straitjacket, by any means necessary – even if some of these parties have troubling, far-right pasts or some oddball, reactionary figureheads in the present.

The great irony here is that the green and leftish parties of Europe were so confident they had captured the youth, they campaigned ardently to lower the voting age. Thanks to their efforts, Germany and Belgium allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the EU elections for the first time this year. How did youngsters pay them back? By voting in their droves for the anti-green populists.

So why are Gen Zers voting against type? A lot of commentators have tried to explain this by pointing to the rise of video-sharing platform TikTok. This has certainly played a role, but not because, as some have claimed, it has allowed the youth to be brainwashed by ‘far right’, ‘disinformation’ campaigns. Rather, the populist right has done a far better job than the stilted mainstream of marketing itself online and tapping into viral trends. The undisputed populist ‘TikTok king’ has to be Jordan Bardella, the sharply dressed, 28-year-old president of RN (also tipped to be the next French prime minister, if his party wins in the upcoming snap legislative elections). He has amassed a huge following on TikTok – which 29 per cent of French young people used as their primary source of information about the EU election campaign. Bardella shares clips from his speeches and media appearances, where he rails against elites, out-of-control immigration and the ‘savaging’ of French society. Almost all of his clips receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views.

Maximilian Krah – the AfD’s controversial, now-expelled lead candidate for the EU elections – employs a similar strategy. He regularly posts short videos on everything from EU censorship to asylum policy. He even offers dating tips. According to Deutsche Welle, the AfD manages to reach as many young Germans via TikTok as all the other parties combined.

Zoomers are arguably the first generation to have grown up entirely online. So it’s no wonder that this rapid-fire, provocative brand of TikTok politics appeals. But there is far more to all this than just the platforms the young use. Conventional wisdom tells us that younger people tend to be more ‘radical’ than their parents. Gen Z is no exception here. It’s just that this is a generation that has been raised with trigger warnings, safe spaces and the constant threat of cancellation. Woke orthodoxy has been shoved down their throats for almost their entire lives, from school-age onwards. Just as the students of 1968 revolted against their conservative elders, the youth of today are lashing out against a stifling atmosphere of political correctness.

For some youngsters, the populist right will appear fresh, new and rebellious. But more than anything else, these parties are simply seen as the best way to hit back against the shibboleths of their Millennial and Gen X elders. Right-wing populism is far from an ideal or perfect weapon, but it is the only one many young Europeans have at their disposal right now.

Even if Gen Z is voting for right-wing parties, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a backwards-looking generation. Young people still back gay rights and access to abortion. In Germany, 44 per cent of all AfD voters supported the party not so much out of ideological conviction, but because they were disillusioned with the mainstream offerings. Before the EU election, one survey showed that almost a quarter of under-29s in Germany ‘didn’t know’ which party they would rather vote for – the biggest group by a decent margin.

Above all, Zoomers are keen to punish the parties they see as having made life worse for them. Young voters in Germany have seen the disastrous results of the government’s Net Zero policies, which have led to widespread deindustrialisation and reduced job prospects. Similarly, French youth face unemployment levels far above the European average. It’s no wonder that 32 per cent of French Gen Zers imagine that life will be worse for them in a decade than it is now.

Indeed, RN is attracting voters from the sections of society struggling the most. French manual workers were the party’s biggest backers by far in this year’s EU elections. Almost half of French people with the lowest level of education voted for Bardella’s party – himself a university dropout from a working-class suburb of Paris.

It’s the same story in Germany. Across all age groups, the AfD was by far the most popular party among those who describe their financial situation as ‘poor’ and who describe their work as ‘blue-collar’. In the less prosperous east, the AfD vastly out-performed the second-placed CDU, with maps of the EU election results almost perfectly recreating the borders of the old German Democratic Republic.

In the UK, among 18- to 34-year-olds, 12 per cent of those with a GCSE-level of education or below plan to vote for Reform in the upcoming General Election, compared with just two per cent of those with university degree or higher. Across all ages, those belonging to the lowest socio-economic groups are far more likely to back Nigel Farage than the well-off.

Generation Z’s revolt against the orthodoxies of their elders may look a lot different to that of previous generations, but it is a revolt nonetheless. And one that has been a long time coming.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

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