Populist parties and governments have gained in popularity in many countries across the world in recent months. Their success is in part based on citizens’ fear of globalization, immigrants, loss of identity, diversification of the population, and economic hardship. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the Europe Union and the United States voted for Donald Trump. France’s left-wing government will be the outlier in the 2017 presidential election, and the French will choose between Francois Fillon, the candidate for the Republican Party, and National Front leader Marine LePen. The right-wing party of Gert Wilders in the Netherlands (PVV) has topped some recent polls for the parliamentary elections in March 2017, and Germany is gearing up for its parliamentary elections in September, where the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a right-wing populist, anti-immigrant party, is poised to move into the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
The narrative in most western democracies includes a discussion about demographic change. As the population ages, the focus shifts to the next generation. Much has been said and written about the Millennials or Generation Y (18-30 year-olds). On the one hand they are said to be particularly civic-minded and engaged; on the other, they are the Generation-Me, predominantly concerned with themselves. As with other generations before, Millennials are probably not a homogenous group either. [Read more about AICGS’ transatlantic exchange program for young minorities.] But how do members of this next generation see their country, society, and government, and how do they vote?
In the U.S. presidential election, based on analyses of 2016 exit poll data, 55 percent of millennial voters between the ages of 18-29 voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and 8 percent for a third-party candidate. In 2012, a similar picture emerged with 60 percent voting for Barack Obama and 3 percent for a third-party candidate. Thirty-seven percent of young voters cast their vote for the Republican candidate Donald Trump (in 2016) and Mitt Romney (in 2012). It is important to note, however, that in 2016 young voter turnout was below the general voter turnout and it was even lower than in 2012.
In 2016, Germans voted in four state elections: Berlin, Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg, and Rhineland-Palatinate. In the Berlin state parliament elections 7 percent of voters between the ages of 18-29 voted for the AfD. In comparison, 12 percent of those aged 30-44 and 17 percent of those aged 45-59 favored the AfD. In Baden-Württemberg, 13 percent of voters under the age of 25 voted for the AfD, which ranked third after the Greens and the CDU. In Rhineland-Palatinate, 12 percent in the same age group cast their vote for the AfD, third place behind the SPD and the CDU. Saxony-Anhalt, in eastern Germany, was the only state where the young favored the right-wing populist party, with 25 percent of voters under 25. Similar to the U.S. presidential election, young voters were less likely to cast their ballot in the 2016 state elections than their older compatriots.
In the UK referendum in June 2016, young people predominately voted in favor of an open, cosmopolitan European Union. France and Italy appear different: young voters in larger numbers support the anti-European platforms of the political parties. In both countries, the young are also the main victims of economic insecurities.
While the percentage of non-voters is high among the young, especially in the U.S. but also in Germany, their votes seem to indicate that they generally favor globalization, inclusionary politics, and an open and tolerant society. While Donald Trump and the AfD have been successful in mobilizing former non-voters, can we assume that the young generation—if mobilized to vote—would cast their vote against their populist politics? It is a risk worth taking. The next generation represents the future and should participate in shaping it. Their lives will be impacted by today’s elections much more significantly than the lives of the older generations. [Read more about AICGS’ German-American dialogue of the next generation.]
More should be done to encourage the young to cast their vote, in every election, and to be responsible citizens who have the power and an important mandate to shape their own future. Are parents, educators, civil society, and political leaders failing in engaging the next generation to become active citizens? One important lesson to impart may be that peaceful demonstrations in opposition to elected governments and their policies—like the post-election demonstrations in the United States and the anti-populist demonstrations in Germany—are important and legitimate, but casting a vote in the first place is even better.
Susanne Dieper is the Director of Programs and Grants at AICGS.