Against the Grain

The Kids Aren’t Alright

More young voters are rejecting capitalism and democracy—from the United States to France. It doesn’t bode well for our own political future.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn waves as he arrives at Labour party headquarters in London on Friday. British Prime Minister Theresa May's gamble in calling an early election backfired spectacularly, as her Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament and pressure mounted on her Friday to resign.
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
June 9, 2017, 10:51 a.m.

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.

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