The world watched as a political earthquake hit the Dutch parliament on November 22. The party of populist radical-right politician Geert Wilders, whom many caricature as the Dutch Donald Trump, won 37 seats in the Netherlands’s 150-seat Second Chamber, potentially positioning him to become the country's next prime minister. Hundreds of left-wing voters immediately took to the streets of Utrecht and Amsterdam and protested his victory.

Wilders, as the face of the Party for Freedom (PVV), has long been a presence on the Dutch political scene. For two decades, often with incendiary rhetoric, he has argued that the nation’s leaders should curb immigration (mostly of Muslim Moroccans), leave the European Union, and “put the Dutch first.” Europe’s radical-right parties are today enjoying a resurgence of support that could herald a new cycle of extremism across the continent, with profound implications for upcoming European elections in June 2024.

The Dutch election highlights two increasingly salient questions for liberal democracies. Will voters choose self-styled men of the people, like Wilders, who run on promises to put their respective countries first, or elite, more cosmopolitan figures, like Dutch politician Frans Timmermans, who frequent Brussels, headquarters of the EU? And who are “the people”? For years, the mainstream media have blamed uncouth old white males in the hinterlands for the electoral successes of Wilders’s counterparts, including Donald Trump, Giorgia Meloni, Viktor Orban, and Marine Le Pen. But it’s past time to abandon this reductive narrative and take a more considered view of the populist voters reshaping Western politics.

In the past decade, political discontent has grown across the West in response to mounting economic problems. Voters have increasingly lost trust in the democratic process, and the rise of radical-right populist parties has given them a chance to register discontent with the status quo.

Academics disagree on definitions of “populism,” but Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde’s is clarifying: populism, he says, is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will).” Populism is characterized by a Manichean moral framework: the people are seen as homogenous and virtuous, while the elite are seen as corrupt and self-serving.

Two theories are helpful in considering populism’s root causes. First is the economic-shock model, which centers on the public’s economic grievances and globalization. Second is the cultural-shock model, revolving around immigration and social issues.

The economic-shock model has figured prominently in recent discussions of populism. The theory holds that as economies become increasingly interconnected, globalization, migration, and automation have undermined the economic prospects of ordinary people and thus triggered a populist backlash. As the more affluent embrace globalization for its economic benefits, others have felt left behind. Many political commentators and academics have noted, often derisively, that right-populist parties appeal to the fears and anxieties of globalization’s “losers.”

Over the last several years, however, other observers have attributed the rise of populism to cultural, rather than exclusively economic, factors. Pipa Norris and Ronald Inglehart notably investigated radical-right populism through their “cultural backlash theory.” The two scholars contend that behind populism’s rise is not only voters’ economic insecurity but also a reaction against progressive cultural values. In Wilders’s case, his party was polling at 12 percent in early October, but its support skyrocketed after the Israel-Hamas war commenced and pro-Palestine protests swept the nation. While we cannot yet draw a causal conclusion, it seems plausible that these highly charged events prompted many Dutch voters, seeing radical cultural change explode before their eyes, to rally behind Wilders, who has built a political career on his opposition to Muslim immigration.

But Norris and Inglehart characterize populists in the familiar way—as being mostly uneducated, provincial, old, mostly white men, who align themselves against a well-educated, liberal, cosmopolitan elite. Many scholars agree, and we often hear university students speak condescendingly of populist voters and paint them as poor and benighted old men.

Political scientist Armin Schäfer has highlighted flaws in this characterization of populist voters. His data show that younger voters are actually as likely to vote for populist leaders as are older ones; despite millennials being popularly portrayed as progressive, they are as likely, according to Schäfer, to vote for populist leaders as are their grandparents. All age cohorts hold both libertarian and authoritarian values; while they cherish individual freedom, they often find security of comparable importance. Cohorts’ preferred balances of liberty and order are actually quite similar, as opposed to what Norris and Inglehart suggest.

These and other data suggest that the demographics of the populist backlash are more diverse than commonly understood. Younger generations are more likely to cast protest votes and entertain radical politics. The populist impulse to go to extremes in response to voters’ resentment and distrust of institutional politics is winning over diverse segments of the youth voting bloc. Over 41 percent of Europeans aged 18–35 have inched toward the right-to-radical right—that is, they have scored between 6 and 10 on a scale measuring conservatism—while only 26 percent have inched to the left. Only 40 percent of Europeans between the ages of 16 and 29 trust political actors, and young people believe less in the traditional left/right divide than do older generations. The widespread assumption that young adults are naturally inclined to progressive politics has blinded many commentators to the reality that young voters, especially drop-outs and those living in rural areas, have anchored numerous radical-right populist electoral victories.

Other European countries’ electoral results are challenging academics’ presuppositions about populist voters even more. In France, Éric Zemmour’s party, Reconquête, was set up by young, highly educated urban militants, known as Génération Z. While his party garnered only 7 percent of the vote in last year’s French presidential elections, the other, more established face of the French far right, Marine Le Pen, has increasingly attracted the youth. Le Pen’s efforts to rehabilitate her father’s party have given her credibility among the younger generation, as 42 percent of 18–24-year-olds think that the National Rally can participate in a government (compared to 38 percent of all French people). In Poland, about a fifth of voters under 30 (versus 1 percent of those over 60) voted for radical-right leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke. According to the Italian polling institute Ixè, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia garnered almost 20 percent of the 18-to-34-year-old vote, the largest share of any party in Italy. Perhaps most strikingly, according to the most recent Ipsos data, Wilders’s party drew in the most younger voters compared to the other parties: 17 percent of voters aged 18–34 supported PVV, compared with a mere 7 percent who did so in previous elections. Among 16 to 18 year-olds, Wilders’s popularity is even higher.

Support for Wilders’s party also differed by educational attainment. Among university-educated voters, 24 percent supported the PVV, while 62 percent supported the GreenLeft–Labor Alliance (PvdA-GL). Voters with higher educational attainment, however, pulled the lever for PVV than for Democrats 66, the Dutch liberal party. Voters with moderate education levels were more likely to back the PVV (47 percent) than the PvdA-GL (27 percent). This is noteworthy, as back in 2017, education was the strongest predictor of PVV support, with dropouts the most likely cohort to have voted for Wilders.

The Dutch populist not only gained support in the rural heartland but also in numerous urban areas, and had a surprisingly close male/female voting split at 53–47. Furthermore, the data show PVV is becoming increasingly attractive to voters with a migrant background, such as Surinamese Hindustani or Dutch of Chinese descent. It has also garnered the most support of any party among Dutch people with Caribbean roots.

The political earthquake that rocked the Land of Tulips also shattered an image long engraved in the Dutch imagination. The portrait of the angry, resentful, poorly educated, old, white, male populist has been challenged by a new coalition of 2.4 million voters, an ensemble more diverse than academics and commentators ever imagined. If the Dutch victory sent shock waves beyond its borders, it should remind us that Europe’s populist right seems currently to have some wind behind it—and its riders are no longer carbon copies of their captains.

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images


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