Young People and Politics


Young People And Politics.

It’s the day of Dutch elections today and several other European countries are going to be asked for their votes in the coming months.

What attitude towards politics do young people have these days? How are rightwing-populist parties influencing young Europeans? Is the recent election and inauguration of the American president Donald Trump influencing politics here in Europe? We asked students and experts of our university about young people and politics today.

“You should vote for the believe not for the person”                  

                                               “the general party is persuaded”


Olivier Fayy, IBEB Student, informed but not active

Olivier Fayy has roots in Switzerland. He has in general high trust in politics, because “it is easy to vote in Switzerland in comparison with other countries”. His only concern is that the general party is to easily persuaded, that’s why he thinks that “ people should be tested how much they know about what the parties talk about”


“Don’t make promises, when you can’t keep them”


Niek Kircher, Business administration, informed but not active

Niel Kircher, on the other hand trust the politicians only for a little bit, because “they make promises to win the people over”. He also thinks that the low educated people are not able to make a wise decision and therefore “only the high educated people should be able to vote”.


We spoke to Dr. Jeroen van der Waal and Dr. Willem de Koster, two political sociologists of our university that have been working closely together for several years.

Dr. Willem de Koster whose main research focus lies on the backgrounds and consequences of cultural conflict and discontents, is an Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at our faculty.

Dr. Jeroen van der Waal is primarily engaged in research on the impact of globalisation on inequality, value orientations and voting behaviour in the west. He is the director of the master Politics & Society at our faculty.


Are there going to be concrete consequences of Trump being the president of the United States for young people here in Europe? What would they be?

Van der Waal: In general, the young are more inclined to go towards the political extremes, either to the left or to the right side. Therefore, one could expect that Trump with his extreme views on various issues having been elected might lead to young people considering those as more legitimate. Especially, among the youny with Trump’s views might be seen as viable options for contemporary politics.

De Koster: I would add, this effect will probably be seen especially among certain portions of young Europeans. A general consequence of Trump being president is more social polarization because proponents and opponents clash quite heavily about the question whether Trump is right or wrong on a lot of issues. I think, given this general tendency of the young to be a bit more extreme than older people in their political views, you could expect that this social polarization on all the issues addressed by Trump, such as refugees, could be even more outspoken among younger generations. That way, quite a deep societal divide between proponents and opponents of Trump’s view can be expected especially among the young which could lead to tensions between people who strongly disagree on these issues.


And what do you think are the factors that make young people more inclined to go towards political extremes?

Van der Waal: It’s certainly not a new tendency that we see for the first time now that Trump has been inaugurated. For decades, actually from World War II onwards, patterns of young people being more inclined than the old to opt for the extremes have been found. Why this is the case, is a difficult question.

De Koster: Many people assume that young people who are economically insecure and looking for a job might be more inclined to look for extremes. But, you see the same patterns in Dutch high school students who tend to opt relatively frequently for either the Green left or the PVV. These two off-centre parties have far more support among high school students than among the general population. And as high school students usually aren’t directly affected by economic insecurity, this cannot be the full explanation. It could have something to do with factors that are more related to Psychology, namely the overall tendency of people to become more moderate and less thrill seeking throughout life.


Could the tendency towards the political extremes among the young also be related to them not being sufficiently informed or interested?

Van der Waal: One could actually state the exact opposite: It has been found that the highest levels of education are actually associated with extreme political activities. For instance, the new left movements in the 1970s were inspired by university students and also communist tendencies in many western societies in the recent decades could be found among the youth with the highest levels of education. So, I do not think that being less informed is one of the drivers here. Maybe, as already mentioned, simply the tendency to become more moderate regarding practically everything and also becoming more sensitive to the possible consequences of more extreme views, which automatically comes with age serves as the best explanation of this phenomenon.

De Koster: But of course, all of this is speculation…


Is there any explanation for the fact that especially right wing parties seem to appeal to young people nowadays? Do you think these parties apply certain strategies to speak to young people?

Van der Waal: In general, I’m not sure whether there is a strong age effect on that specific aspect. The most important social cleavage here is between the more and the less educated rather than between the young and the old. You see a lot more support for right wing parties, such as the Dutch PVV and also in other European countries, among the less educated. So I think, if you look at social differences in support for political parties, then especially when it comes to right wing parties, education is the main divide. It appears much more influential than other divides such as age and gender, which of course are present as well: males tend to support right wing parties more than females do and there might be an age difference, but the key really is education.


Nowadays people are speaking of a lack of trust in politics that they are experiencing. How do you think the youth sees this and how does that affect their political views?

Van der Waal: First, we have to keep in mind that in our societies here in Western Europe, levels of trust in politics are generally rather high. But here again, a strong divide can be seen when it comes to the less versus the more educated.

De Koster: There is no clear decline in political trust. There are always some temporary fluctuations in trust, but no clear tendency of a long-term decline can be seen in the Netherlands.


Are there significant differences in trust and interest in politics between the young and the old?

Van der Waal: Interest and knowledge among young people are clearly present to a lesser extent. Young people generally are less informed and less interested. And of course these two go hand in hand, if you are less interested, you are less likely to properly inform yourself.


Do you think there are ways to change that and get young people more involved in politics? Could giving young people more influence be a way?

De Koster: I think, giving young people opportunities to directly influence politics would only appeal to those who are highly politically interested and informed already. But, how to stimulate young people’s interest? I think, what we currently see in the Netherlands is that politicians are trying to  frame themselves as not being politicians. For example by saying “Well, that’s politics in The Hague, that’s not me” like Geert Wilders from the PVV. By doing that, they create a gap between themselves and politics thereby creating a bridge between themselves and young people who don’t identify with politics. They sort of place themselves among the people and that way appeal to a certain sector of the electorate. On the other end of the spectrum you see Jesse Klaver from the Green Left who has become something similar to a popstar, replacing formal readings of the party’s election program by meet-ups in concert halls where an exciting vibe, almost a fan culture is created. That’s another way to distance yourself as a politician from the traditional image of politics that scares off young people.


There has been a shift of the ratio of young and old people living in European countries. As we recently saw in England, where mainly the votes of older generations in the end led to Great Britain leaving the EU. How does this recent trend affect young people’s attitude towards politics?

De Koster: I think age-related issues are becoming more politicized because there are more elderly people nowadays. In the Netherlands, for instance, we have the party Fifty plus which is a party for older people. They are especially concerned with economic issues related to the elderly, for example higher pensions. And I believe, many young people feel threatened by this because they feel that all the money that will go to the elderly is in fact taken away from the young. Maybe they don’t exactly feel powerless but I do think that this opposition between the young and the old is more salient today than it was before because of the stronger polarization on these economic issues between the young and the old now that it has been politicized by the parties. According to recent polls, this Fifty plus party is currently gaining quite some strength and this could lead young people to become concerned.


Is there an opposite movement that has emerged in reaction to the Fifty plus party?

Van der Waal: Interestingly, no – not yet. It will be interesting to see what happens in the decades to come as the shift of the young – old ratio will continue to change and conflicts may become more salient. A scenario could indeed be that there will be further gain in influence and popularity for parties like Fifty plus and that in reaction to this other parties become more focused on the interests of the young. Perhaps, there won’t be a specific party for the young but a shift in the election programs of established parties towards the interests of young voters. Especially those parties that already appeal to the young portions of the population, such as the Green Left.

De Koster: And for other parties it could work the other way around in terms of “contagious” politics: Established parties that are now mainly appealing to older generations might adopt aspects of Fifty plus’ election program. Quite a few parties will probably feel pressured to move into a political direction favouring the interests of the old. This phenomenon can also be seen currently in right wing populist parties that drag other parties in their political direction, as they feel pressured to adapt in order to keep attracting voters.


How do you think the future voting behaviour of refugees that will have the right to vote in a few years from now will change the political situation in European countries? Especially, in terms of right wing tendencies?

De Koster: A possibility could be for example an increase in size and influence of newly founded parties, such as the Dutch pro-immigrant party Denk. I guess, a large of share of the potential electorate for such parties stems from ethnic minority groups. So, if these will increase in size and eligibility to vote, parties like Denk might become a political counterforce to populist right wing parties. I think then the social divide between these two ends will become more important in everyday politics and will no longer only be subject to societal conversations.

By Melissa de Gast and Minou Gandras


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