This column rarely delves into international politics. But Thursday’s shocking election result from across the pond could carry bigger long-term political implications in the U.S. than the impact of James Comey’s seismic testimony against President Trump on Capitol Hill. Against all expectations, Prime Minister Theresa May saw her governing majority dissipate, despite running against a far-left Labour nominee (Jeremy Corbyn) whose platform was more Marxist than social democratic. Corbyn’s surprisingly competitive showing was fueled by young voters, who rallied behind Labuor by a whopping 34-point margin (63-29 percent), according to British exit polling.
For all the fears of creeping nationalism, it’s the growing discontent of the millennial vote that’s been a consistent theme in recent Western elections. Young voters are more willing to cast ballots for candidates on the fringes, opposing the neoliberalism of the Clinton/Blair variety and the nationalist, anti-European Union/pro-Brexit sentiment increasingly dominant on the Right. Many young voters are rejecting capitalism entirely, attracted to rhetoric promising free tuition and a generous social safety net at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. Numerous studies also show younger voters are much more skeptical towards the value of democracy than their elders.
It’s showing in the recent election results from the U.S., France, and now Great Britain. A stunning 27 percent of French millennials voted for the Communist-allied candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, in the first round of the country’s election. He won more votes among millennials than any other French candidate on the all-party ballot. According to Britain’s exit poll, youth turnout shot up by 12 points from the 2015 election, while giving Labour nearly two-thirds of the vote. And back home, Bernie Sanders’ youth-vote dominance over Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential primaries is surely a sign of where the future energy lies within the increasingly progressive Democratic Party. During the presidential primaries, Sanders drew more under-30 voters than Hillary Clinton and Trump combined.
To be sure, there are different reasons for the youth’s drift towards the far left in the different national elections. In France, an anemic economy where youth unemployment is well over 20 percent is a prime culprit in millennial radicalism. In Britain, the backlash to Brexit (and to May’s relationship with Trump, to a lesser extent) looks like the key driver for youth engagement behind the Labour Party, with the shocking result of the EU referendum serving as a wake-up call. And in the United States, where the economy is relatively decent, identity politics are a driving force animating the Left.
But while it’s easy to understand the forces driving young voters to the extremes, it’s harder to understand how much they’re willing to tolerate. Corbyn has been a lonely defender of various terrorist groups, and has been under fire for tolerating creeping anti-Semitism within his own party. Melenchon raged against the global financial system like a true French revolutionary. Compared to these two, Sanders looks like a hardened tea-party activist.
How will this trend manifest itself in American politics? It’s clear that, despite being shut out of power, the Left could come back with a vengeance in the next presidential election. With Trump deeply unpopular and his administration enmeshed in scandal, it’s hard to be bullish about the Republican Party’s chances in upcoming elections. And with the Democratic Party’s energy increasingly on the left, it’s not hard to see them nominating an Elizabeth Warren-type as their standard bearer in four years—and prevailing.
American politics, for generations, was fought between the center-left and the center-right—between the 40-yard lines of politics. Trump obliterated that dynamic in last year’s election, and will likely fuel even more polarization from the opposition. We could be witnessing growing extremism on both sides for years to come, with the future generation only expediting that depressing prospect.