Right-wing populism and young voters
“A virtual social movement”

What moves the young generation?
What moves the young generation? | Photo: © Syntika/iStock

What is it that draws young people to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and what is the situation in other European countries? An interview with the sociologist Matthias Quent from the Thuringia-based Institute for Democracy and Civil Society.

Mr Quent, young, male, poorly educated – is that an apt description of the “typical” AfD voter?

Matthias Quent, Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena Matthias Quent, Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena | Photo: © private What is true is that more men than women voted for the AfD in the most recent parliamentary elections at state level. What is more, the proportion of less well-educated people was indeed higher than among those who voted for other parties. As far as their being young is concerned, things are more complicated, as AfD attracts votes from all age groups. Although the younger demographic is not particularly noticeable as yet, they are accounting for a growing proportion of the party’s voters. It is much like with the Front National in France: in the past, it tended to be mainly the older rural population who were the party stalwarts, but that has changed radically – in 2015 one in three under-25s stated that they intended to vote for the party. The possibility of the AfD following a similar pattern cannot be ruled out. At first their voters were generally older and better educated, but this is now shifting.
Why do young people vote AfD?
One of the reasons of course is that young voters are generally more willing to cast an experimental vote. They feel no longstanding ties to any particular party in the way for example that older generations do to the left wing party in East Germany, to the social democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia or to the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria. It is also striking that the AfD uses social media more heavily than other parties. The federal branch of the AfD has more than 300,000 “friends” on Facebook, whereas the SPD and CDU have only roughly 120,000 each. The AfD uses this instrument very intensively and successfully.  

“Contrived change in the air”

So successfully that it can even influence voting behaviour?
On an individual user level, most definitely. It is possible to address potential voters directly in the social media, and the party’s state-level and regional branches are well aware of this: on Facebook they can show that they share the concerns of people at the local level without having to stand around all day canvassing on the street. Adopting this populist and caring stance clearly works, and the Internet has considerable power to mobilize. The AfD is contriving to make people feel as if change is in the air, and in doing so has created a kind of virtual social movement.
Why are young women less susceptible to this than young men?
In terms of its entire political agenda, the AfD is a party that believes in the white male predominance of the 1950s. It wishes to reverse numerous social achievements. In my view its success is based on deep-seated feelings of resentment that have arisen out of growing equality and a modern political culture. Workers and the unemployed, and particularly men, feel that they are being left behind. In the race for the best jobs, their head start as compared to women and people from immigrant families has dwindled from five metres to three. They see this as unfair, and this frustration can be politicized.

“Liberal parties unable to reach them”

What do liberal parties need to do to win back AfD voters?
Those who are now ticking the AfD box on their ballot papers are for the most part people who used not to vote at all. Even in the past, the liberal parties were essentially unable to reach them. Consequently, it makes no sense for these parties to attempt to imitate any of the AfD’s positions. Their initial response should be to maintain their stance and defend their own party line.
Even at the risk of no longer being able to reach these voters?
I doubt that this is even possible any more. That is why they would be best advised to stick to their own convictions and, if the worst comes to the worst, to accept that the AfD will attract ten to 15 percent of voters, as we are currently seeing in elections. This group already existed before the party emerged. During the debate in 2010 about Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (i.e. Germany is digging its own grave), one in five people said in surveys that they would vote for a right-wing populist party.

“National identity in the foreground”

Could more political education help?
Political education is important. That said, one should not have any illusions that real experiences cannot reshape what people have been taught at school or university. Of course it is important to point out Germany’s disastrous history and to make it clear that democracy is a step forward and that social equality has increased. However, if people feel disadvantaged in their everyday lives, this is a contradiction that is virtually impossible to resolve.
What is the situation in other European countries in terms of young people and right-wing populist parties?
In Eastern Europe in particular there is a new generation that is self-confidently defining itself as nationalistic. This generation no longer feels tied to Russia or the EU but rather places its national identity in the foreground, just as the previous generation abandoned it. This phenomenon can also be observed in other countries. Furthermore, non-parliamentary groups are on the rise all over Europe. The Identitarian movement for instance is growing hugely. It offers nationalistic and racist policies and takes a modern and provocative stance in the social media. At the same time, the number of violent right-wing attacks is increasing. We are seeing a process of radicalization that leads one to fear the worst.