June 25, 2024

We’re now witnessing one youth rebellion wishing to tear down the product of another: the left-liberal hegemony seeded by the student rebels of ’68.

Wherever you look, establishment parties are in panic mode throughout Europe. The centrist old parties may still be in charge but their appeal is waning day by day. Polls show that more radical outfits on both sides of the political spectrum are beneficiaries of this silent rebellion. In particular, the surge of national conservative parties seems more pronounced and, at the same time, much more worrying for the mainstream. 

The haphazard efforts of the ruling class to keep the Right under control, in turn, only accelerate the ongoing right-wing surge. One important reason for this self-fulfilling prophecy is that the right-wing populist vote is often driven by the Gen Z youth, while the hallmark progressivism of millennials is turning middle-aged with them.

In Germany, the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is the most popular party among people under 30, with an impressive 22%. Similarly, a third of the French 18-to-25-year-oldssupport Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN)—with none of the established parties able to break double digits among them—while nearly half of the youngest cohort is expected to cast their ballots for one of the two national conservative parties in Italy (Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia or Slavini’s Lega).

Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) continues to lead among the youth with its promise to deliver one of the toughest asylum systems in Europe. One in four people under 34 supports Portugal’s Chega (‘Enough’), the nationalist Vlaams Belang enjoys the support of a third of young men under 27 in Belgium, and the anti-immigration Finns Party is the most popular in Finland among every age group below 65.

There are, of course, differences and caveats in each country. For instance, there was never such a great ideological divide between young men and young women, who often tend to favor the Greens, social-progressive, or far-left parties, but are also much more likely to join their male peers in the national conservative camp than vice-versa.

Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. Europe is turning more right-wing with every passing year and it is not despite but because of the established parties’ awkward efforts to cling to power in a world that no longer wants them.

How generational revolt becomes culture war

In most European countries, the majority of young people are protest voters. There’s no groundbreaking revelation here; the notion of radical political change has always been championed by the youth first. And just as the nature of cyclical social evolution would dictate, we’re now witnessing one youth rebellion wishing to tear down the product of another: the left-liberal hegemony seeded by the students of 1968. 

The underlying sentiments against Europe’s current political elites might have been primarily anti-establishment and therefore inherently non-partisan, but since the prevailing paradigm of previous decades was liberal, the ongoing revolution favors those who challenge it from the conservative Right.

“All the others have been calling the shots for long enough,” an 18-year-old AfD-voter in Germany explained in FT’s recent report. “Now it’s our turn.”

Polls in the country also show that the German youth’s primary growing concerns are the economy, inflation, and—consequently—immigration. This is also what another first-time voter and AfD supporter implied, saying that she wonders whether she’ll ever have a pension if things go on as they are. “We face a lot of uncertainties and I just don’t feel they’re being addressed by the old parties,” she added.

What this shows is that there are deeper underlying layers than what’s often simplified—and Americanized—as a one-dimensional “culture war.” The oldest of Generation Z are already in their late-20s. They finished their education years ago and are trying out different career paths in the hope of settling down with some form of financial stability, but their first experience in the outside world is often that it is no longer the one their parents started out in. 

Living through multiple recessions, a pandemic, and a war before the age of 30 does not generate the impression of Europe being in competent hands. By now, housing crises and job market saturation have become synonymous with large Western cities, which led an entire generation to question the dogma that ‘multiculturalism is our strength.’ 

What turned this—initially economic—revolt into a cultural one was the elite’s response to these rising concerns: ‘The problem is not us, it’s you; those who think national interests are above other things are dangerous far-right lunatics.’

We see this effect play out in Germany in real time as we speak. The German establishment’s disproportionately harsh crackdown on a party song with improvised anti-immigration lyrics had the perfect inverse effect and will probably make a larger impact on right-wing youth mobilization than a thousand essays ever could.

The stronger an attack on an idea, the more support it gets among young people, because that’s how it works. Nothing can make the phrase “Germany for Germans” more appealing to a 20-year-old than knowing it’s banned, and the current political elite—whose members grew up fighting against authoritarianism from both sides of the Iron Curtain—should know better.

“It’s like with rock’n’roll in the 1950s—there’s this youthful rebellion,” explained Florian Russ, a regional leader of AfD’s youth wing. “A lot of people listened to Elvis because their parents forbade them to. It’s the same with the AfD. People are asking—are they really so bad? And they check them out and find they’re not bad at all.”

What young people find when they check out these parties are talking points and political positions that are presented as extremist today, but that were not only completely acceptable but entirely mainstream just a few decades ago. So, if the current ruling paradigm no longer offers a viable future, the only rational choice is to return to a better past. 

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