One of the criticisms levelled at young people as an electoral group in the modern age is that they have a predilection for left-wing ideologies. This ranges from “soft-leftism” (i.e. political parties in the European Social Democratic tradition) through to radical leftism, in the form of Marxism/Communism in the Soviet-mould, and usually with the oft accompanying factors of progressivism and zealous radicalism. Many reasons are given for this phenomenon; middle-aged conservatives prefer to rely on the excuse that schools and universities are allegedly brainwashing young people, or that it demonstrates a lack of maturity and a lack of awareness in “how the world works”.
Aside from being something of a generalisation, this is rather unhelpful in dealing with the issue. Firstly, it’s pertinent to note that this is a typically irresponsible excuse, for it presupposes that young people must be brainwashed in order to be repulsed by conservative ideas. This demonstrates an acute lack of self-awareness on the part of older conservative voters, who may do well to take a closer look at the ideological doctrine they’re promoting (we shall return to this point later). Secondly and, more importantly, it groups together a number of variables that might do well to be viewed as separate issues altogether. For instance; is leftism entirely and uniquely progressive? Probably not. An equally relevant observation is that leftists and, specifically Communists, don’t hold a monopoly on radicalism. Unpackaging the terms associated with this phenomenon helps us to better analyse what’s occurring here, with a view to altering this trend for the future.
The observation that young people are and always have been inherently left-wing in their voting patterns is not based in reality. Yes, in this present epoch, the perception is that this is the case, but history provides numerous examples where it isn’t. For instance, two of history’s ideologies most diametrically opposed to Communism are Fascism and National Socialism; these were not propelled to power, in Italy and Germany respectively, by the early 20th century equivalent of the Baby Boomer generation. Rather, these were dynamic ideologies driven by the younger generation. This was true in Germany in particular, where younger people were instrumental in electing the National Socialist party. Austria, too, was a hotbed of youthful National Socialism; the Anschluss was arguably only successful because young Austrian National Socialists acted as a counterweight to the older supporters of Austrian national independence – over 80% of young Austrians supported unification with Germany in 1938.
And, as we can see from the data, the young leftist stereotype is not uniform today, even in Western Europe. In France’s Presidential Election (2017) first round, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, won just 9% more votes from the 18-24 age group than far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. In Austria, too, around 65% of 18-30-year-olds voted for the nationalist FPÖ in the 2017 Federal Election, compared to 26% of all age ranges. There are, though, some results that appear to confirm the trend. In the United Kingdom’s 2017 General Election, for instance, 60% of those aged 18-24 voted for a Labour Party under the stewardship of radical left-wing firebrand Jeremy Corbyn. This same trend was observed in Germany in 2017, where Die Linke (modern successor to the East German Socialist Unity Party) actually increased its share of the vote in younger constituencies. The data shows a neat correlation between an increased number of 18-30-year-olds and a rising popularity of the radical left-wing party.
The question we must ask ourselves is as follows: does this data show a trend which confirms the hypothesis that young voters have a predilection for radical leftism/Communism? Inconveniently for the older conservative stereotype, the answer is a resounding no. Indeed, when we view recent election results through the context of history, we see that the only innate gravitation of younger people is towards general radicalism, not necessarily left-wing ideologies. We can also see a tendency towards progressive ideology, but the notion of progress is subjective and certainly not the exclusive domain of left-wing parties.
This can best understood when examining the rise of fascism and National Socialism in the early 20th century; National Socialism in particular was considered an incredibly progressive ideology. Conservatives of the day were quite averse to folkish ideas because they saw the destruction of traditional institutions that upheld the ‘old way’. Conversely, this meant that young people, with their natural instinct towards radicalism and progressivism, flocked to National Socialism in droves.
What the data does tell us is that young people are inherently progressive and radical. From this, we can also ascertain that conservative ideology is anathema to the youthful sensibility, precisely because it’s rooted in stability, cautious societal management and banality – in short: boring.
Learning from this trend is more difficult than simply analysing it. For we cannot encourage older voters to abandon their natural conservatism anymore than we can convince young people that there’s something sexy about conservatism. What is possible, however, is to abandon this lazy excuse favoured by conservatives that young people have been brainwashed into supporting Communism, for this simply isn’t true. The truth of the matter is that left-wing ideologies have been better equipped, generally speaking, to tap into the progressive pulse of youth and harness its radicalism for the cause. This is the challenge that those on the right – nationalists, mainly – have to meet. It’s useless, however, to attempt, as some are seemingly doing, to make conservatism “sexy” and appealing to young people. Those who peddle “Christian conservatism” like it’s some revolutionary masterstroke are destined to fail, because their ideology seeks to cling to notions of the church and traditional institutions that are considered stale and outdated by today’s youth. If conservatism is the sole guiding principle, then one must accept that their core voter base will be the aged and the few remaining diehards of church congregations. Alternatively, if nationalism is the guiding principle, then this is more flexible and can be adapted to harness the radicalism and progressive nature of the youthful mind, as has been shown repeatedly in the past to be possible.