In university and in their youth, they are liberal, open-minded and pluralistic. Then, later on in life, they proceed further and further to the right – more conservative, more intolerant, more self-centred. This is a common trajectory for many people.
Let us be clear, not all young people start out as left-leaning idealists. Nor does everyone become progressively more right-wing as they get older. But there is a particular phenomenon here that is hard to ignore. What is more, it is a phenomenon that appears to be quickening in our time, particularly in certain parts of Europe and the US.
Take some obvious examples. Hungary’s current far-right populist leader, Viktor Orban, began his political life as a young liberal. He even benefited as a student in 1989 from a scholarship funded by American-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Two decades later, Mr Soros donated $1 million to Mr Orban’s government following an environmental disaster, when a dam burst, releasing a toxic red sludge of aluminium by-products. Yet now Mr Orban is diametrically opposed to his former benefactor and via his Fidesz governing party, he is one of the key figures in Europe today campaigning to mainstream far-right populism. In June, his “Stop Soros” bill was passed, making it illegal to help undocumented migrants.
There are others who begin even earlier, eased on their path by access to technology and the spread of ideas on social media. For example, the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian university professor who has been accused of being misogynistic and a poster boy for the populist right. Surprisingly, some of his biggest fans are young white males.
Even further along the political spectrum are groups associated with the identitarian or white nationalist movement, which deliberately targets young people. Such groups are deeply embedded within the wider far-right movement – and can often be the most extreme in terms of their embrace and promotion of conspiracy theories and bigotry. Across Europe, groups such as Generation Identity are using carefully calculated names and slickly designed websites to entice young people away from the liberal left.
Many of these groups count among their number former idealistic liberals. It would be a mistake to consider that they lost all their principles when they moved over to the right. On the contrary, many of them take a commitment to ideals with them. The question is: what ideals, and to what end or purpose?
The common denominator between all these groups is identity, an idea that speaks to a raw sense of self that many young people are struggling to hold on to in a modern age filled with uncertainty and disenchantment.
It’s a problem that far too few in the mainstream political elite have grappled with, imagining that a sense of global cosmopolitanism is sufficient for the vast majority of people everywhere. That might be true for some, but not everyone.
It’s for this reason that theorists such as myself have often written about the need for a respect for diversity to exist within a matrix of cohesive national identity. Most people need a sense of belonging – and if they do not find it sufficiently within one political group, they’re quite easily tempted to find it somewhere else. Especially, as happens with the populist far right, when proponents offer simple, if wildly wrong, explanations for why their lives aren’t quite working out the way they would wish. Lost your job? It’s because of those Muslim migrants taking them.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to see that this obsession with identity doesn’t also exist on the left. It does, and it simply expresses itself in different ways. Take, for example, the phenomenon of far-left pundits and figures, who insist on expressing solidarity with such autocratic figures as Syria’s Bashar Al Assad in a misguided attempt to rail against western imperialism and interference. Here, obsessively maintaining a radical identity results in support for dictators.
Across the board, identity remains a crucial factor in seeing how these shifts take place. But it also reminds us that if we, as a society, are to give our young people a future, we need to take this issue seriously.
If we do not give genuine leadership in a chaotic world and in a crowded marketplace of ideas and information, people can easily become vulnerable to those who appear to offer simple solutions and a sense of belonging. That is not a risk we can afford to take.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London