The times they’re a-changing: Young people and the tide of radical politics

march

I have always been interested in politics. Since childhood, I have always tried to engage in debates with my peers, but I have never been able to spark their interest. Now, much to my surprise, my Facebook wall is inundated with expressions of political involvement. Old friends of mine, whose interests back in the day encompassed only drinking and dating, seem to have become experts in migration, taxes and constitutional law. And most of them diverge far from the liberal centre.

This seems not limited to Poland, though. Probably the best illustration of a global change in the political climate are the latest presidential elections in Austria, where two candidates representing opposite poles of the political spectrum competed for the presidential office. This polarisation of the political scene shows that people are no longer willing to support politicians with moderate worldview. People experience growing dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs and expect more radical, visible changes in their countries. The young, especially, feel this way.

Although the electorate of the recently elected Polish government, run by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), is not primarily composed of Polish youth, the country can certainly boast of a radical shift in the political orientation of young people. Today, masses of young people are flocking to extremist movements, especially those associated with the radical right. Such parties and organisations as the National Radical Camp (ONR) and National Movement (Ruch Narodowy) are becoming increasingly popular among Polish teenagers.

Far-right populism has always been present and popular in Poland. As in most European countries, the decade preceding the outbreak of the Second World War was a turbulent period. The country struggled economically, culturally and politically; various political movements, including those representing the extreme left and right, strived to influence the public sphere. Some organisations impacted upon political life directly, e.g. National Democracy, a party known for its hostility towards the Jewish minority, managed to secure a considerable number of seats in the parliament. Although the party was outlawed during the period of authoritarian rule, its ideology continued to influence other movements. One of them was the above-mentioned ONR, which already in the 30s was spreading its overtly fascist and anti-Semitic message.

It may seem surprising that a nation which co-experienced the most brutal acts of anti-Semitism during the war may have been so hostile towards the Jewish population. Today, Jewish people constitute an inconsiderable portion of the country’s population, but nationalistic moods and ethnic tensions persist. Why is this so? This ‘right turn’ of young Poles may be happening for a number of reasons, but two appear to be the most significant: a growing fear of mass immigration (fuelled by the same far-right organisations) and a general discontent with the bleak reality and lack of opportunities in the country. The latter was probably the cause of the great success of Pawel Kukiz, who managed to introduce his populist right-wing movement to the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament). He promised one thing – to turn the tables and dismantle the system. It may seem that such a rallying cry is enough to persuade the contemporary youth about one’s good intentions.

Unsurprisingly, Kukiz’s message shifted dramatically when his grouping won some seats in the parliament, with the refugee crisis becoming an issue of the greatest importance. The best illustration of Kukiz’s transition to an even more radical right is his endorsement of a newly-established organisation named Endecja, which directly refers to the ideology of the pre-war National Democracy movement. Such ideological shifts seem particularly dangerous, since ordinary people may be lured by the presumably good intentions of populist politicians and thus allow disguised far-right extremists to enter the political mainstream.

Similar populist rhetoric may be observed in the USA and its build-up to the presidential race. Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire, dominated the primary season and became the Republican nominee for the presidential office. His opinions, no matter how controversial, appeal to the masses of people who are willing to see a radical change irrespective of the cost.

However, what is more interesting is that young people do not constitute the biggest group among Trump’s supporters. The disillusioned American youth appears to flock to another candidate – Bernie Sanders. Although he caucuses with the Democrats, this senator from Vermont distances himself from the mainstream liberal views held by the party’s elite. His social democratic politics have become increasingly appealing for the country’s young adults, faced with such down-to-earth problems as the inability to pay off a student debt or to use free public health care. Even though “the Bern” lost to Hillary Clinton and thus also lost the opportunity to compete with Trump, his unexpected rise to popularity, especially among the youngest segment of voters, gives hope for the future.

So, maybe Poland is exceptional in having its youth so conservative? It may be tempting to conclude that Poland has chosen an extremely conservative route, though similarly to the US, there seems to be hope on the horizon. Last year’s emergence of a new social democratic party Razem (Together) attracted the attention of a lot of people. The party quickly became prominent on the Polish political scene and, although not represented in the parliament, it is now considered one of the most influential political movements in Poland. What is striking is that young people constitute the majority of its composition. Thus, it is not true that the young are simply voting for somebody else (e.g. a right-wing extremist) to change the world for them – some of them actively engage in what is happening in their surroundings and, despite their young age and lack of experience, are really eager to fight for their future.

We can observe a similar trend in other European countries. The best example of this phenomenon is probably debt-stricken Spain, where the far-left Podemos, which started as a grassroots academic movement, was transformed into a prominent political party. Podemos, just like Razem, attracts mostly young Spaniards, who are fed up with the mainstream parties and seem to believe that the party provides an alternative to the way in which politics is handled in the country. Their rhetoric may to some extent be reminiscent of that adopted by their extreme opponents, as they depict the political mainstream as elitist and uninterested in the mundane problems of ordinary citizens. But even though the core of the message remains the same, the ideology of Podemos (and similar entities) rejects calls to hatred and violence and is able to instil hope in the hearts of young voters in a more positive way.

Surprisingly, the supposedly Eurosceptic UK has also experienced a revolution in terms of political attitudes. The popular belief says that the major non-mainstream force in British politics is UKIP, a one-issue party focused only on leaving the European Union. However, it seems that the British youth wants something else. According to research conducted by academics from Manchester Metropolitan University, young Britons are among the most politically active in Europe and, more importantly, appreciate the UK’s membership of the EU. This may be well illustrated by the emergence of Momentum, a leftist organisation inspired by the appointment of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party. The organisation aims to actively support the Labour Party with different kinds of local, grassroots undertakings. And, again, young people constitute the majority of its composition. As in the case of Razem, the British youth appear to be investing their political zeal in an active struggle for a fairer world, starting from their immediate surroundings.

Young people have definitely had enough of mainstream, centrist politics. They need a fresh perception and are ready to search for it, even if it involves flirting with the most extreme ideologies. One question remains unresolved: how is it possible that, while some of them choose a supposedly easier route of populist nationalism and xenophobia, others realise their political ambitions with difficult leftist activism? There are certainly several factors influencing young people’s choices, such as level of education, place of residence, occupation and so on. It seems, then, difficult and pointless to seek any definitive answer. What is more interesting is the fact that for more and more of the young a single-sided message is not enough. What they desire are reasonable arguments, covering various topics and discussing different dimensions of social life. This seems to give them motivation to get up and change the world. And this is what gives hope for a better future.

Cezary

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