Ideas on Europe

Populist Right Parties and the generational shift

Populist Right Parties and the generational shift

For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Nick Startin, from John Cabot University, in Rome.

Over the last decade, there has been much media debate about the rise of right-wing populism and its potential threat to liberal democracy.

That’s right: from Trump to Bolsonaro, from Orbán to Erdoğan, the notion that an era of ‘illiberal democracy’ is gaining momentum has become a dominant media narrative.

And over the last twelve months the debate has intensified in Europe with Marine Le Pen’s strong performance in the 2022 French elections, followed by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia and first female Prime Minister of Italy.

In France, on the back of the protests over President Macron’s pension reform and his controversial decision to trigger article 49.3 to pass his legislation, we have even seen in recent days a further rise in support for the Rassemblement National. According to an IFOP poll conducted for the Journal du Dimanche, support for the RN would rise by 7% if there were fresh parliamentary elections in France.

So, it sounds as if that media speculation about the onward electoral trajectory of the Radical Right in Europe is right?

Certainly, what with the cost-of-living crisis and tensions around migration across the West, the demand side conditions remain favourable for Radical Right Parties. But we shouldn’t necessarily be as pessimistic as some media channels and experts would lead us to believe.

The reality is that Radical Right Parties, in spite of their potential to exploit the ‘echo chamber’ of social media and to spin ‘fake news’, are not in control of the shifting demographic, generational cycle. Some of the regressive policies of the Radical Right simply do not chime with the evolution of public opinion among the younger generation in some key attitudinal areas. And this is problematic for the Radical Right.

What kind of issues are we talking about?

Let’s take ‘climate change’. Traditionally, European Radical Right Parties have tended to be in ‘denial’ or ‘sceptical’ about climate change but as the issue has taken on more salience – particularly among younger voters – this has led to a scramble among the Radical Right to appear credible on the ‘climate crisis’.

In France, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen’s commitment not only to stop new wind farm projects, but also to dismantle existing ones, was a reality check for many younger, undecided voters at the last Presidential elections France.

What other issues are there beyond climate change ?

On value issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, the demographic sands are also shifting away from the Radical Right. In the U.S, it was apparent how some Republican candidates were unable to exploit the Roe versus Wade debate to their advantage in some key contests at the November midterm elections.

In Italy, the Meloni government, despite its strong emphasis on traditional family values, will have to tread carefully if it does not want to appear out of touch with younger voters. For instance, it is unlikely to instigate any national legislation on the reform of abortion law, for fear of it being overturned by a constitutional referendum.

It’s true, the Italian senate did vote against a measure introduced by the European Commission to make the recognition of same-sex parents mandatory. But we have also recently seen demonstrations in Milan after the Minister for the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, advised the centre-left Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, to stop registering the children of same sex couples. This has alienated many voters, particular younger ones.

So, are you implying the long-term electoral prospects of the Radical Right in Europe may not be so clear-cut after all ?

In the long term, this might well be the case.

As the wheel of demography continues to turn, so progressive social attitudes are likely to become more entrenched. No amount of regressive framing by Populist news channels or social media is likely to reverse this. The simple truth is that the ‘generational genie’ is out of the bottle, and it can’t be put back in!

Such demographic changes are likely to put Radical Right Parties on the back foot as they seek to widen their support. In truth, despite much talk of ‘culture wars’, these demographic shifts are probably more likely to strengthen liberal democracy in a global context rather than ‘illiberal democracy’ in a national one!

Thank you for this cautious note of optimism in a long-term perspective. I recall that you are currently teaching at John Cabot University, in Rome.

Interview by Emilie Finck.