Will the Millennials save Europe?
There is a revolution underway in Europe and America that is overturning established politics and bringing to the fore younger, more charismatic leaders.
The latest example is the rise of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz in Austria. He is almost certain to be made prime minister. Although Kurz is a nominal member of the establishment Austrian People's Party, he is ready to upend Austrian politics by asking the nationalist Freedom Party to join his coalition.
Just a few short years ago, the anti-immigration Freedom Party was thought to be unacceptable in Austrian politics. But the massive influx of refugees has made anti-immigration a mainstream position, which has led to the rise of nationalist parties not only in Austria, but also in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Even radical left parties in Greece and Spain have made tremendous gains. These parties are no more euro-centric than nationalist parties elsewhere. And the common denominator is the youth of Europe rejecting classical politics as debt skyrockets and immigrants threaten to take jobs that are fast disappearing on the continent.
But another factor is at work in Kurz's rise, one he shares with Trump: antipathy toward immigration—and the global rise of the city. Kurz is part of Austria's long-reigning, center-right Austrian People's Party, but many argue that he was only able to keep the establishment in power by cribbing much of the platform of his rival, the hardline Freedom Party. Earlier this week, Kurz invited them into government, a dramatic move for a political party once broadly viewed in the Austrian public as unacceptable.
"Given the dual shocks of the terrorism and the sheer numbers of the 2015 influx [of North African and Middle Eastern migrants], it's almost surprising these wins for the right didn't come sooner," Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative, tells me. He argues: "It's a good thing if the center-right parties are pushed to take Gaullist positions," in the style of the late giant of French politics, "even it takes the far-right to push them there. ... It, at least, means actual election results are beginning to align with voter sentiment on immigration, which is pretty decisively in favor of restriction." Even Macron, ostensibly a centrist, has struck a sterner note on immigration than expected, and he's stood by controversial comments that sub-Saharan Africa's problems partially emanate from impoverished women recklessly having too many children.
Like Trump, Kurz is ironically from his country's most prominent city, but it didn't matter, as both took up the mantle of traitors to their class. "Vienna is to Austria what not only DC, but New York, Chicago and Hollywood are to the U.S.," says Clemans. "Suburban, small town and rural folk resent it," and Kurz was deftly able to exploit "latent anti-Vienna sentiment." Clemens adds: "Beyond Vienna, it is a pretty cozy, insular country, so as elsewhere, lots of people reacted against the image of uncontrolled borders and people who seem very alien." The turn rightward seems, at current, almost unstoppable. Merkel lost seats last month in her re-election bid with an electoral strategy, of in part, appealing to the center-left. Kurz did the opposite: "he went the other way and gained."
The right-left divide is less important to younger voters than dealing with specific issues that bother them. Their anti-establishmentarianism results from a clear rejection of the "politics as usual" formula, whether it's from liberals or conservatives. This has favored more nimble politicians like Macron of France and Kurz in Austria, who have learned to speak the anti-establishment vocabulary while not scaring off more centrist voters.
Can Millennials save Europe? The forces arrayed against nationalism in Europe are formidable and include a media conditioned to routinely equate nationalism with fascism. But many Millennials are beginning to see through those falsehoods and are embracing, if not more conservative policies, at least policies that are less euro-centric. There is more questioning of leaders who apparently don't care about terrorism as much as the rest of the population does. And while support for the E.U. remains fairly strong, questions about the tyrannical way Brussels seeks to control the social life of other nations are becoming more prevalent.
It remains to be seen whether European youth will actually be able to stave off disaster. But even a casual observer must be impressed with the way they've already altered politics and set the establishment scrambling to reform.