The European Left’s Youth Problem

Here in the United States, we are used to thinking of the Millennial generation as progressive in a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated way. Members of this generation lean left on both social and economic issues and cast their vote accordingly for Democratic candidates.

In Europe, things are more complicated. It is true that Millennials in Europe are notably cosmopolitan, tolerant, and open-minded compared to the outlook of previous generations. But it is also true that they are a generation whose access to economic mobility bears a vexed relationship to the welfare state and to older voters, who are its chief beneficiaries.

Despite these complications, the good news for European progressives is that this generation appears to lean left in most countries. The bad news is that progressive Millennial voters in most countries tend to fragment their vote among a multiplicity of parties. Many of them look beyond the main left or social democratic parties and cast their vote for greens or social liberals or even new anti-establishment parties. This appears to be a universal problem for the main left parties, which weakens their ability to compete with the right. The relative unattractiveness of social democrats to younger voters in their countries is resulting in the rapid aging of the support base for these parties. Betting on older voters to keep social democrats politically viable is a risky strategy, but it is, in effect, where many social democratic parties are currently placing their bets.

Out of economic and political necessity, social democrats and labor parties will have to change course and devote far more attention to younger voters. Mass unemployment in southern Europe, declining youth-employment opportunity across the continent, and burgeoning retirement and health care costs from the baby boomers all imply that the social democrats’ key historical achievement — the welfare state — will need radical reform if it is to gain support from this new generation. Moreover, as the younger generation is less deferential and more cosmopolitan in outlook, social democrats will also need to pay far greater attention to both broader policy issues like as the environment and civil liberties and the organizing structure of their political movements. Both will require social democrats to rethink their core political commitments.

Can they do it? Recent events do not inspire confidence, at least in the short run. Nowhere is this clearer than in Italy.  Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment party, the Five Star Movement, came out of nowhere in the recent election to become Italy’s largest party, powered by the youth vote. Despite the Five Star Movement’s generally progressive program (anti-austerity, anti-corruption laws, political system reform, protecting the environment, universal unemployment benefit, local referendums on large public works), the Democratic party, the second-largest party and Italy’s main left party, has made little effort to reach out to Grillo and his movement.

This came to a head with the refusal of the Democratic Party’s leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, to back a candidate for President, leftist lawyer and politician Stefano Rodata, who had the support of the Five Star Movement, of the youth-oriented Left Ecology Freedom party (with which the Democratic Party had formed an electoral alliance) and of a large chunk of his own party, including the dynamic 38 year old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Instead, Bersani backed an 80 year old right wing candidate, Franco Marini, simply because he was acceptable to Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media magnate and maximum leader of the Italian right.

Marini went down to ignominious defeat, with many Democratic Party legislators voting against him, as did another candidate backed by Bersani.  In the end, 87 year old Giorgio Napolitano, the incumbent President, agreed to serve another term and was duly re-elected, though over the vociferous objections of the Five Star Movement.  The whole episode fatally undermined Bersani’s hold on his party and he has resigned.

On the positive side, Bersani’s resignation cleared a path for new blood in the Democratic party in the form of 46 year old Democratic Party politician Enrico Letta, now prime minister of a new coalition government.  On the negative side, the new coalition government basically consists of the two big traditional parties, the Democrats and Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom party.  It not only does not include the Five Star Movement, it also does not include the Left Ecology Freedom party, the Democrats’ erstwhile ally, which has refused to join the coalition. Not exactly the dawn of new day.

Is this any way to build support and a new image among young voters?  No, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite, a way to convince these voters that you have nothing to say to them and simply want to keep the old system intact.  Until this changes, expect the traditional left in Europe to continue to fare poorly among young voters and for young voters to continue to support greens, liberals and unconventional new parties with a populist edge.