Why Are Young Eastern Europeans So Right-Wing?

At least since the French revolution, young people have traditionally been more left-leaning than their parents.  It hasn't changed over the past few decades, and there is little reason to think it's going to reverse any time soon.  The fact that older people are more conservative and younger people tend to be more liberal is also in line with existing research and scientific literature.  In Western Europe and throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, this theory hasn't been challenged for a long time, and despite some of its shortcomings (youths seem to be more liberal on social issues than economic ones), it still works today.

But what if we look into Central and Eastern Europe?

As unbelievable as it may sound, here it's completely different – the situation is exactly the opposite.  Evidence suggests that the right has been steadily gaining momentum over the last few years.  It even looks as though conservative parties will soon have a monopoly on the political power.  To some extent, we can already see this happening in Orbán's Hungary and Kaczyński's Poland.

More surprising must be the observation that, unlike in the United States or Britain, right-wingers draw their strength especially from young voters.  How is it even possible?  The short answer is – as usual – the most obvious one.  Countries where communist regimes had lasted for as long as four decades and left a permanent mark on local population possess different experiences and understanding of the world affairs from those of their western counterparts.  They have, for example, good knowledge of what socialism is and how extreme some left-wing policies can actually be in real life.

The longer answer is a little more complicated and requires deeper comprehension of the post-communist mentality.  It's true that socialism has distorted the thinking of eastern and central Europeans, as many E.U. officials often find in Brussels.  Members of the Visegrad Group, they say, are all just naïve fools who do not understand the obvious benefits of tolerance and multiculturalism – but it's really not the case.  Even here we like Indian cuisine.  We also know how the left-wing totalitarianism looks.

Right-wing youth

This mysterious phenomenon can be observed in virtually every country that has undergone such development.  Hungary is the brightest example.  In the April parliamentary elections, the ruling Fidesz party, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, gained support from 38% of voters in the 18-29 age group.  Yes, it's less than the total number (which stands at 49%), but we have to understand that even though Fidesz is nominally a conservative and right-wing party, it's still mainly a movement of one egoistic politician without any clear (or at least honest) ideology.  And remember, Fidesz was a proud liberal party in the '90s.

This kind of ideological uncertainty is not at all present in Jobbik, the second strongest party in the Hungarian parliament, usually described as far-right or ultranationalist.  It received 31% of votes among young people.  According to a 2015 poll, Jobbik is also the most popular party among university students.

Similar numbers are available from other countries of Visegrad Group.  According to the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs, up to one third of teenagers in the smallest Central European country support the People's Party – Our Slovakia, which is commonly referred to as neo-Nazi.  (Its leader, Marian Kotleba, a great admirer of the right-wing authoritarian first Slovak republic, gives to poor Slovak families checks for 1,488 euros.)

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland also enjoys growing popularity among youths.  In the last election, almost 26% (less than overall but still many) of voters under 29 cast their ballots for this conservative and heavily Christian party of Jarosław Kaczyński.

Second place (with 20% of young people) went for the Kukiz'15, an anti-establishment and euroskeptic movement created by rocker Paweł Kukiz, and third place with 16% went for a right-wing libertarian party called Liberty, whose leader is Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke.  He is well known for an international audience because of his infamous television interview with Piers Morgan, which went viral on YouTube.

"Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent," said Korwin-Mikke, with a roughish smile, to the shocked hosts of Good Morning Britain.  He was immediately branded as "the most sexist man in politics."  Mr. Piers Morgan went even farther and called him on live television "a horrendous sexist pig."

It's obvious that the popularity of someone like Korwin-Mikke is much bigger among young men.  But his party enjoys steady support among young women, too.

The traditional role of the right-wing and left-wing parties in some eastern European countries is not as clear as it should be.  In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, the left is often perceived as conservative, anti-immigrant, and euroskeptic.  It's a unique and specific paradox: social democrats are sometimes more on the right than Christian democrats.

As political scientists Martin Eiermann, Yascha Mounk, and Limor Goultchin of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have shown, populist parties (mainly right-wing) are on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe.  While in 2000, populists took an average of 9.2% of the national vote, their popularity has since more than tripled to 31.6% in 2017.

Beyond politics

Ironically, Stalinist regimes in Europe had besides many horrible effects on population also some positive ones.  Socialism is hampering technological progress and limiting human potential – that's a well known fact.  Nobody, however, seems to think that it also slowed social progress.

While left-wing movements have pushed in the West the left's social agenda, the communists and their unchanging dogma froze Eastern European societies permanently in the old, more conservative past.  Despite the official state ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the population remained traditionally oriented.  Therefore, eastern and central Europeans had shielded themselves in an unprecedented way from malign progressivism of the New Left.  As a result of this, post-socialist countries entered the new millennium more resilient against the ubiquitous offensive of the modern Marxists.

Germany is the epitome of ideological disparities between West and East.  The eastern Germans are different from their western colleagues not only in terms of economic prosperity, but also on the level of political preferences.  The former GDR is now the stronghold of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which is, according to the latest survey, the most popular party here – with the support of almost 25% of local citizens (country average is just below 17%).

New Iron Curtain

For people in Eastern Europe and especially in the Visegrad Group, the pressure from the E.U. officials on Poland and Hungary is a clear attack on post-communist countries, despite the fact that there may be a lot of truth in their allegations.  The Sargentini report criticizing the state of liberal democracy in Hungary, the theatrical approval of which triggered a wave of emotional reactions all over the European Union, punishes a country where more and more young people are planning to vote for the right.  It will doubtless add fuel to the populist fire.

"Hungary shall continue to defend its borders, stop illegal immigration and defend its rights – against you, too, if necessary," said Viktor Orbán to MEPs in the European Parliament.  He meant it – as long as the majority of young people in Hungary agree with him.

If we want to keep our dream of a united Old World alive, we should be careful.  With this kind of attitude toward eastern members of the Union, Europe could easily fall into two hostile parts again and hide its ideological differences behind a new Iron Curtain – although, from the perspective of the left-right political spectrum, this time in reverse.

At least since the French revolution, young people have traditionally been more left-leaning than their parents.  It hasn't changed over the past few decades, and there is little reason to think it's going to reverse any time soon.  The fact that older people are more conservative and younger people tend to be more liberal is also in line with existing research and scientific literature.  In Western Europe and throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, this theory hasn't been challenged for a long time, and despite some of its shortcomings (youths seem to be more liberal on social issues than economic ones), it still works today.

But what if we look into Central and Eastern Europe?

As unbelievable as it may sound, here it's completely different – the situation is exactly the opposite.  Evidence suggests that the right has been steadily gaining momentum over the last few years.  It even looks as though conservative parties will soon have a monopoly on the political power.  To some extent, we can already see this happening in Orbán's Hungary and Kaczyński's Poland.

More surprising must be the observation that, unlike in the United States or Britain, right-wingers draw their strength especially from young voters.  How is it even possible?  The short answer is – as usual – the most obvious one.  Countries where communist regimes had lasted for as long as four decades and left a permanent mark on local population possess different experiences and understanding of the world affairs from those of their western counterparts.  They have, for example, good knowledge of what socialism is and how extreme some left-wing policies can actually be in real life.

The longer answer is a little more complicated and requires deeper comprehension of the post-communist mentality.  It's true that socialism has distorted the thinking of eastern and central Europeans, as many E.U. officials often find in Brussels.  Members of the Visegrad Group, they say, are all just naïve fools who do not understand the obvious benefits of tolerance and multiculturalism – but it's really not the case.  Even here we like Indian cuisine.  We also know how the left-wing totalitarianism looks.

Right-wing youth

This mysterious phenomenon can be observed in virtually every country that has undergone such development.  Hungary is the brightest example.  In the April parliamentary elections, the ruling Fidesz party, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, gained support from 38% of voters in the 18-29 age group.  Yes, it's less than the total number (which stands at 49%), but we have to understand that even though Fidesz is nominally a conservative and right-wing party, it's still mainly a movement of one egoistic politician without any clear (or at least honest) ideology.  And remember, Fidesz was a proud liberal party in the '90s.

This kind of ideological uncertainty is not at all present in Jobbik, the second strongest party in the Hungarian parliament, usually described as far-right or ultranationalist.  It received 31% of votes among young people.  According to a 2015 poll, Jobbik is also the most popular party among university students.

Similar numbers are available from other countries of Visegrad Group.  According to the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs, up to one third of teenagers in the smallest Central European country support the People's Party – Our Slovakia, which is commonly referred to as neo-Nazi.  (Its leader, Marian Kotleba, a great admirer of the right-wing authoritarian first Slovak republic, gives to poor Slovak families checks for 1,488 euros.)

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland also enjoys growing popularity among youths.  In the last election, almost 26% (less than overall but still many) of voters under 29 cast their ballots for this conservative and heavily Christian party of Jarosław Kaczyński.

Second place (with 20% of young people) went for the Kukiz'15, an anti-establishment and euroskeptic movement created by rocker Paweł Kukiz, and third place with 16% went for a right-wing libertarian party called Liberty, whose leader is Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke.  He is well known for an international audience because of his infamous television interview with Piers Morgan, which went viral on YouTube.

"Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent," said Korwin-Mikke, with a roughish smile, to the shocked hosts of Good Morning Britain.  He was immediately branded as "the most sexist man in politics."  Mr. Piers Morgan went even farther and called him on live television "a horrendous sexist pig."

It's obvious that the popularity of someone like Korwin-Mikke is much bigger among young men.  But his party enjoys steady support among young women, too.

The traditional role of the right-wing and left-wing parties in some eastern European countries is not as clear as it should be.  In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania, the left is often perceived as conservative, anti-immigrant, and euroskeptic.  It's a unique and specific paradox: social democrats are sometimes more on the right than Christian democrats.

As political scientists Martin Eiermann, Yascha Mounk, and Limor Goultchin of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have shown, populist parties (mainly right-wing) are on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe.  While in 2000, populists took an average of 9.2% of the national vote, their popularity has since more than tripled to 31.6% in 2017.

Beyond politics

Ironically, Stalinist regimes in Europe had besides many horrible effects on population also some positive ones.  Socialism is hampering technological progress and limiting human potential – that's a well known fact.  Nobody, however, seems to think that it also slowed social progress.

While left-wing movements have pushed in the West the left's social agenda, the communists and their unchanging dogma froze Eastern European societies permanently in the old, more conservative past.  Despite the official state ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the population remained traditionally oriented.  Therefore, eastern and central Europeans had shielded themselves in an unprecedented way from malign progressivism of the New Left.  As a result of this, post-socialist countries entered the new millennium more resilient against the ubiquitous offensive of the modern Marxists.

Germany is the epitome of ideological disparities between West and East.  The eastern Germans are different from their western colleagues not only in terms of economic prosperity, but also on the level of political preferences.  The former GDR is now the stronghold of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which is, according to the latest survey, the most popular party here – with the support of almost 25% of local citizens (country average is just below 17%).

New Iron Curtain

For people in Eastern Europe and especially in the Visegrad Group, the pressure from the E.U. officials on Poland and Hungary is a clear attack on post-communist countries, despite the fact that there may be a lot of truth in their allegations.  The Sargentini report criticizing the state of liberal democracy in Hungary, the theatrical approval of which triggered a wave of emotional reactions all over the European Union, punishes a country where more and more young people are planning to vote for the right.  It will doubtless add fuel to the populist fire.

"Hungary shall continue to defend its borders, stop illegal immigration and defend its rights – against you, too, if necessary," said Viktor Orbán to MEPs in the European Parliament.  He meant it – as long as the majority of young people in Hungary agree with him.

If we want to keep our dream of a united Old World alive, we should be careful.  With this kind of attitude toward eastern members of the Union, Europe could easily fall into two hostile parts again and hide its ideological differences behind a new Iron Curtain – although, from the perspective of the left-right political spectrum, this time in reverse.