Why Young Europeans Are Embracing the Far Right

As a generation of young voters spends much of its time on social media, the result could be a toxic political cocktail

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OXFORD — Progressives have long counted on young people to champion their causes. Just five years ago, young Europeans voted for parties advocating climate action, social justice, and democratic reform. But this may no longer be a viable political strategy. June’s European Parliament elections showed that many young voters have shifted to the far right, enabling Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant, and anti-establishment parties to make significant gains.

This trend is not confined to Europe. Young Kenyans protesting new taxes stormed Parliament this month, and several were killed when the police opened fire. Around the world, a new youth politics is emerging. While not always aligned with the far right, this movement is often anti-status quo, serving as a powerful warning to politicians about the need to reconsider both their message and their medium in appealing to disaffected young voters.

These voters’ rightward shift is apparent across the European Union. After overwhelmingly supporting the Greens in 2019, 16% of German voters under 25 voted for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in this year’s European elections, putting the party in second place behind the center-right Christian Democrats and well ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats. In France, 30% of the youth vote went to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. This outcome was in line with the 2022 presidential election runoff, when Le Pen won 39% of voters aged 18-24 and 49% of those aged 25-34.

Meanwhile, 21% of Italian voters aged 18-34 helped Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy win a strong mandate to pursue its agenda. In Spain, the ultra-conservative Vox party increased its share of the youngest voters (under 25) to 12,4%. By contrast, the far-right Sweden Democrats came in fourth, despite winning 10% of voters aged 22-30.

Europe’s swing to the right has led many politicians to harden their positions on issues like immigration. But young voters’ growing support for xenophobic, anti-EU, and ultra-conservative parties is driven less by anti-immigrant sentiment than by a powerful sense of betrayal by establishment politicians. As older generations, who have lived economically secure lives, consume a growing share of government budgets through generous pensions and health care, young Europeans grapple with a cost-of-living crisis and dwindling economic prospects.

This growing frustration can be partly attributed to EU politicians’ failure to ensure stable, well-paid jobs for young people. Youth unemployment among Europeans aged 15 to 24 reached 13,8% in 2023. In Spain, the rate was 27,9%, compared to 27,7% in Greece, 20,7% in Italy, and 18,9% in Sweden.

To be sure, there has been some progress in addressing the problem. Youth unemployment in France declined from 25% in 2016 to 15,7% in 2023; in Italy, it fell from 42,7% in 2014 to 22,8% in 2024; in the Netherlands, it decreased from 13,2% in 2013 to 8,7% in 2023; and in Germany, it dropped from 15,5% to 6% between 2005 and 2023. Even so, support for the far right has increased across the bloc amid growing evidence that no matter how hard they work, most young people will end up poorer than their parents.

The problem extends beyond the labor market. In many European countries, young people are also navigating a housing crisis, overcrowded classrooms, and struggling health-care systems. In the face of rising rents, exorbitant tuition fees, and stagnant real wages, young voters are increasingly asking themselves who will address their concerns. Far-right politicians, while wrongly blaming immigration, at least recognize that there is a problem, and they are doing so in ways that resonate with younger voters.

Social media is a prime example. In the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan highlighted the importance of how messages are communicated, not just what is being said. The medium through which people communicate, he argued, shapes their interactions. His famous observation that «the medium is the message» is even more pertinent in the age of platforms like TikTok, which enable far-right demagogues to tailor their messaging to young people.

What veteran politicians who mistake social media for a broadcast medium fail to understand is that it can be a powerful tool for fostering engagement, bonding, and identity formation. But politicians who view social media as a round-the-clock focus group, shaping their policies according to voters’ whims and immediate reactions, are just as dangerous as those who ignore it entirely.

By fueling shared grievances, social media can help political movements expand and rally supporters. For example, while Scholz belatedly joined TikTok in April, the German far right has used the platform to create a powerful narrative — some might say an alternative universe — that speaks to young voters’ fears and anxieties. Consequently, many EU policymakers feel increasingly isolated as they try to do their jobs while online groups mobilize against them.

As a generation of young voters spends much of its time on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram — in the United States, teens spend an average of 4.8 hours per day on social media — the result could be a toxic political cocktail. To win back disaffected young people, political leaders must offer them a future they can believe in and embrace the media platforms where young people live.

© Project Syndicate 1995-2024

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