A Future to Believe in?
“Like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct,” wrote a certain prominent political commentator in January. “The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.” Such political tropes flow freely from the pens of left-wing writers everywhere, from Brooklyn to Austin to Oakland. Yet these fiery words were not vigorously scribbled into the digital media milieu by a disgruntled socialist millennial at Jacobin. No—this is the work of Fox News’s own Tucker Carlson.
Today’s right is not your father’s right (especially if you’re George W. Bush). As even passive consumers of mainstream news could tell you, the rise of modern right-wing populism, personified by the tangerine specter of Donald Trump, has supposedly taken the globe by storm. Blue collar left-behinds in rust-covered, post-union, post-industrial opioid towns have channeled their economic anxiety into a passionate rejection of free trade, immigrants, and taco trucks. Strongmen worldwide, from Jair Bolsonaro to Viktor Orbán, have surfed this nativist wave to victory. Words like “Brexit” and “white working-class” careen through the Twitterverse until it all, somehow, culminates in an endless stream of New York Times “Trump country” profile pieces featuring old white people in Ohio diners.
But the global rise of right-wing populism is much more complex than the Trump-centric meta-narrative would suggest. In fact, the Trump administration—on account of both its demographic base and its ideology—is quite anomalous in the context of the conservative populisms cropping up today. Most politics watchers probably have an idea of the typical Trump voter—white, middle-aged to older, likely a resident of a rural area, unlikely to hold a college degree. But this archetype does not hold for the average right-wing populist voter in much of Europe. In many countries home to an ascendant right-wing fringe, our imagined Trump supporter would look out of place in the populist coalition.
Take the recent rise of the Spanish far-right party VOX (Latin for “voice”), for example, which exploded onto the Spanish political scene in December championing hardline, nativist immigration enforcement and fiscal conservatism. That month, in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia, infighting within the governing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party had led to a dissolution of the government and a low-turnout snap election. Then, for the first time in history, right-of-center parties were catapulted into absolute majority control of the Andalusian parliament. Thirty-six years of uninterrupted socialist rule were over. VOX—which in the last election netted a fringe 0.5% of the vote—rocketed to 11% of the vote, enough to earn membership in the new governing right-wing coalition. But it was not a disgruntled, middle-aged working-class revolt that powered VOX’s rise.
The coalition that voted VOX into power would be unthinkable in the U.S. VOX’s support was strongest in young, highly educated, and high-rent areas with large proportions of residents born outside of Andalusia. In other words, the average VOX voter was a young, socially mobile professional with a postsecondary degree living in an expensive area. In America, such a voter casting a ballot for a Republican would be a statistical improbability. And a Republican wave based on a core of these voters is all but unimaginable in our current political moment. What’s more, the old-guard socialist voters in Andalusia seem, on paper, identical to the Trump coalition: older, non-college educated, and rural.
Differing coalitions aside, Spain’s surging populist right has largely stuck to the pro-free market narrative, which Republicans in the US have held sacrosanct for over half a century. But different populist parties, especially in France and Italy, have recently taken policy positions that are diametrically opposed to conservative orthodoxy. These are rumblings of a broader ideological shift taking shape on the right throughout the globe. And nobody embodies this evolution better than Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right National Front.
As she took the stage at CPAC (an annual gathering of rightist activists and GOP partisans) last year, Le Pen confronted conservatism’s old guard. In front of an audience of old-guard neoconservative ideologues weaned on the dogmatic gospel of free markets, Le Pen took the stage and lambasted the American conservative pillars of individualism and consumerism. Without “the limits of the common good, natural law and collective morality disappear, as the reign of egoism continues,” said Le Pen, towards the middle of a diatribe against grievances ranging from the supposed “Islamization of France” to the allegedly destructive forces of the European Union. “Today, even children have now become merchandise.”
Rarely do American Republicans invoke “natural law”—that is not their style. But Le Pen’s challenge to American conservatism was more than semantic. In terms more familiar to the absolutist philosopher Thomas Hobbes than to America’s constitutional framers, Le Pen attacked the ideology of market individualism as “egoism,” saying it creates an atomized, commodified world, abstracted from the collective good. This is an explicit attack on the conservative American soul: the homesteading, bootstrap-pulling, oil-drilling, regulation-cutting, free-marketeering entrepreneurial Reaganite.
As Mark Lilla notes in the New York Review of Books, the intellectual gulf between young conservatives in France and the U.S. is vast. Whereas young conservative ideologues in America may frequent the YouTube comment sections of online pundit Ben Shapiro, or the theatrically dense activist Charlie Kirk, young French Catholic conservatives congregate in online journals like Limite, pondering cultural and ecological solutions to the uprootedness and alienation of capitalist modernity. That is not to say that similar spaces do not exist on the American right (see The American Conservative), but those spaces have no platform equivalent of the National Front.
Things get even weirder when we turn to Italy. Bolstered by the fallout from years of high youth unemployment and economic stagnation, the Five Star Movement rode a wave of heavy youth support in the 2018 elections to control of Italy’s government. The movement shares some of the same characteristics as many contemporary populisms—anti-immigrant sentiment, a reflexive skepticism of supranational organizations, a charismatic leader (comedian Beppe Grillo)—but the party at its core is uniquely unusual. The namesake of its “Five Stars” are the party’s five ideological pillars: a public water supply, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, the right to Internet access, and environmentalism. Five Star was the brainchild of Italian tech mogul Gianroberto Casaleggio, who laid down his vision for techno-utopian e-democracy during the heady days of the late 1990s Internet boom. The party thrives on the avant-garde, its prominent leaders sometimes flirting with ideas as radical as degrowth, an “ecologist and anti-capitalist economic policy that views overconsumption as at the heart of environmental problems and social inequality.” In the 2013 general elections, Five Star enjoyed such an unexpectedly rapid groundswell of support that on election night, a local candidate for Senate—thinking that she would garner no more than a few percentage points—worked overtime at her Naples office and skipped the election coverage on TV. But when she arrived late at a local bar to watch the results with fellow local party organizers, she discovered—to thunderous applause—that she had been elected to the Senate.
Though much of Five Star’s policy could easily be folded into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, the party, in a complicating twist, entered a ruling coalition last year with Lega Nord. Lega, as it is popularly known, is a far-right party historically associated with the Padanian separatist movement, which strove to achieve independence for Italy’s north. This political reality jars with Five Star’s avowed apolitical, anti-coalition stance, not to mention their base in the largely poorer south. Such are the contradictions that make today’s populist landscape so complex.
In light of the young people’s revolt buoying right-wing populisms worldwide, the question becomes why America’s populist turn looks so different. America has no shortage of youth discontent and political disenchantment. Where are America’s disgruntled, young professionals? They certainly aren’t flocking to Trump: he has a 25% approval rating among millennials, who are possibly the most Democratic-leaning generation in history. Much of Trump’s base has the distinction of actually remembering the America Trump alludes to when he invokes his mantra: “Make America Great Again.” Trump represents a dying class, while many nascent populisms represent an uncertain future.
Young, French conservative reactionaries have, in some areas, more in common with the Democratic Socialists of America than they do with Donald Trump. Our global political paradigm is rapidly shifting. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” arrayed on opposite ends of a political spectrum, are now insufficient to describe the ideological sea-change sweeping our politics. As the backlash to capitalist, neoliberal modernity grows, the most important political distinction that can be drawn is whether one is for the neoliberal consensus or against it. For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have largely operated on the same philosophical ground: a belief in the necessity of capitalist markets and a commitment to individualism. There is a reason that Five Star’s ecologist platform, or the environmentalist Catholic social teaching of young French conservatives, sounds “socialist.” New conservatives and socialists alike both seek to curb the supposedly corrosive effects of global markets on the modern environment and society; as Mark Lilla notes, Bernie Sanders is quite popular in French conservative intellectual circles. Both groups seek to assert some collective identity (whether “the land” for French Catholic integralists, or “labor” for socialists) to supersede the alienation of consumerist hyper-individualism. Both groups reject neoliberal modernity—in short, both groups are reactionary.
Of course, young socialists in America and populist radicals elsewhere have wildly divergent worldviews. The Democratic Socialists of America are heavily pro-immigration, for example, even going so far as to endorse open borders, while big-tent populist supporters in Europe tend to reject cultural diversity and “neoliberal cosmopolitanism” in favor of hard borders and monolithic nation-states. But many of these differences are byproducts of circumstance—the United States is not an ethno-state, while many European states are. Immigration in the United States, though an extremely contentious issue among certain cohorts (read: Republicans), is easily folded into our “nation of immigrants” narrative. And among Americans aged 18-29, 42% say legal immigration to the US should be increased—around double the support professed by those aged 50 and over—while only 18% say it should be decreased. Europe, meanwhile, is a land of ethno-states, and the 2015 migrant crisis tore at the continent’s social fabric. This explains why, in France and in Spain, rhetorical claims of defending one’s nation against an invading culture (Islam) resonated with disaffected young people—Europeans have always thought in these terms. But, increasingly, globalization is exposing the industrialized world’s cohort of young professionals to the same forces. Whatever local form they may take, resurgent anti-establishment movements are increasingly training their sights on neoliberalism itself.
The Great Recession of 2008, with its unprecedentedly global scope, helped draw the battle lines. Young people today are contending with an economic world far different than that of their predecessors. To a twentysomething saddled with crushing student debt, the concept of working summer jobs to pay off student debt is as outlandish as landing on Omaha Beach, and rightfully so. In America, many millennials graduated college at the height of the Great Recession. The long-term market for good-paying job prospects popular among recent university graduates—in finance, law, journalism, and academia—had just been clobbered, possibly permanently. The amount of college graduates majoring in humanities, coming off of a surge thanks to early-2000s prosperity, dropped accordingly. This in the context of the most highly-educated generation ever—a growing cosmopolitan elite—having to contend with constant increases in the price of college tuition.
American economist Noah Smith likens these trends to a “revolution of rising expectations,” in which those with high expectations, upon not having their expectations met, are driven to angry political upheaval. Post-2008 conditions have set the stage for the rise of the millennial turn against neoliberalism in all of its forms—whether xenophobic outrage against migrants in Spain or an emphatic cry for a “Political Revolution” against the billionaire class. This populist turn is more than political noise, however. There is real political power in the well-connected, disaffected petit bourgeoisie. For the first time in history, a majority of young Americans oppose capitalism. “They have the brains, the anger, and the spare time to make life very difficult for the capitalist elite who sailed through the crisis with golden parachutes intact,” Smith continued. “One day you’re mocking disappointed young elites for having inflated expectations, and the next day 10-term incumbent politicians are losing primaries to Democratic Socialist candidates.” After all, modern revolutions are not caused by the unconnected; without social capital, grassroots political movements are powerless. America’s populist revolution is not to be found among laid-off welders in Indiana. The true revolt will be carried by Vassar graduates with English degrees.
We are entering a world where the politics of the future are defined not by old-school, free-market “strongmen” like Trump or Viktor Orbán, but by quixotic coalitions of Italian techno-utopians and far-right environmental regionalists. A world where socially mobile Andalusian yuppies vote for neo-fascists. A world where a 41-year-old actor who plays a character on TV that accidentally becomes president is leading the polls for the Ukrainian presidency. A world where Tucker Carlson might vote for Elizabeth Warren. And yes, a world where a 29-year old socialist congresswoman from north-central Queens talks criminal justice reform live on Instagram while making mac and cheese.