One of the most seductive myths in modern politics is that politics itself may one day end—that left will finally triumph over right, or right will defeat left, or moderates from both factions will join together in the spirit of bipartisan comity. Either way, the myth promises a break from the bickering, the anxiety, and the interminable slog of political struggle. Universal solidarity will reign, and the nation will be transported into either a glittering future or a halcyon past.
The myth has obvious roots in Christian eschatology, but you can see its echoes in the major Western ideologies of the twentieth century, both on the right and the left. Marx promised that capitalism would eventually develop into socialism before finally reaching perfect communism. Neoconservatives—many of them former socialists—dreamed of a crusading American empire that would spread liberty and free markets across the globe. Renowned theorist Frances Fukuyama, meanwhile, has posited that liberal democracy represents the apotheosis of global political development. He’s called it the End of History.
Over the past decade, liberals, along with some dogmatic centrists, have found a new dream. Instead of a socialist utopia or a free market paradise, they fantasize about a benevolent, center-left political order. Under this new order, same-sex marriages, medicinal pot, and IUDs will all be easily accessible anywhere in the country; institutional racism will wither away in the face of enlightened attitudes; and common-sense economic policies will protect both working-class living standards and economic growth.
The midwives of this new order, we’re told, will be the so-called “millennials.” As the baby boomers expire and my age cohort becomes the dominant force in American public life, they will “save politics” and end the culture wars, according to Democratic strategist Carrie Wofford. The older, whiter, more conservative base of the Republican Party will fade away. And best of all, it will all happen without a fight. We are the most diverse, tolerant, and liberal generation in American history, they say; all progressives need to do is sit tight and wait for them to become a majority of the electorate.
The same demographic shifts that would lead to a new progressive golden age could just as easily foment a right-wing populist reaction.
It’s a nice story. And like all good myths, it has an element of truth to it. We are, indeed, the most racially diverse generation in American history. We also lean further to the left than any prior generation on issues like LGBT equality, immigration, and environmental regulation. Looking at the trend lines across generations—from boomers to X-ers to the current crop of youngsters—it’s easy to understand why so many observers have convinced themselves that the arc of history bends toward progressivism.
But that optimistic gloss on the data elides a darker possibility. The same demographic shifts that would lead to a new progressive golden age could just as easily foment a right-wing populist reaction. A more racially diverse population might lean further to the left overall, but a shrinking white majority is fertile territory for a supremacist backlash.
For evidence, look no further than the other side of the Atlantic.
Economic instability and migration, predominantly from the Middle East, has inspired ugly nationalist counter-movements in several Western European countries. Young people play a large role in those movements; right-wing nationalist parties like France’s National Front, for example, do surprisingly well with the 18-30 vote. AfD—the party which Der Spiegel recently described as “a catchment basin for right-wing extremists and anti-refugee, Islamophobic rabble-rousers”—has one of the youngest membership bases in German politics, with an average age of 47. (Only members of the Pirate Party are younger on average.)
One way to track whether such a movement could ever gain influence in the United States is by tracking nationalist reaction in its most extreme form: organized violence against minorities. David Neiwert, northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me that violent hate crimes tend to increase in areas that undergo “changes in demographics.”
“When there’s an increase in minorities, that’s when we tend to see these kinds of skinhead type crimes,” said Neiwert. “Or when you’re in a rural area and you have an influx of minorities, then you have people acting out what they see as a defense of their communities.”
But a racist backlash wouldn’t necessarily come in the form of vigilante assaults. It could also influence white voting behaviors or lead some whites to support policies that shore up racial privilege. You can already see this dynamic at work in some parts of the country: When America selected its first black president in the 2008 election, political scientist Eric Oliver identified a minor revolt in what he called the nation’s “Bigot Belt.”
An American right-wing populist movement could absorb bits and pieces of social liberalism in order to appeal to white youth.
Looking at the electoral map, Oliver concluded that “the counties where Republican margins grew the largest tended to be predominantly white places in otherwise racially mixed states.” These are areas, he observed, where “locally segregated whites have less contact with nearby minorities yet also feel greater competition for public goods.”
You might think that white twentysomethings are more racially enlightened than their parents, and therefore less likely to fall into supremacist mania. You’d be wrong. A recent Washington Post analysis of survey data found that 23% of white millennials would “rate blacks less intelligent than whites,” compared to 24% of boomers and 19% of generation X-ers. Similarly, a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 58% of white millennials believe “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” On measures of implicit bias, white members of my generation don’t do much better than their elders.
Granted, those same white people are also more likely to favor a vague sort of social liberalism. They tend to be down with same-sex marriage, supportive of marijuana decriminalization, and in favor of social freedoms that would have seemed radical just a few decades ago. You can see why their parents might consider them bleeding heart liberals, and in a very limited sense, it is true that white people my age are less conservative than their parents: Pew finds that slightly fewer of them identify as Republicans or lean in that direction, though the difference is not terribly large.
But the kind of right-wing reaction I’m talking about doesn’t look exactly like traditional Republican conservatism. It’s something much more durable, and potentially deadlier. In fact, one of the things that makes right-wing populism so dynamic is its ideological flexibility. Rather than adhering to a rigid conservative orthodoxy, an American right-wing populist movement could absorb bits and pieces of social liberalism in order to appeal to white youth. By cloaking itself in easy-going permissiveness, borderline fascism can make itself seem almost reasonable.
That dynamic is at play in many of the right-wing populist movements of Europe, which have made extreme ethnocentric ideas sound mainstream by downplaying the other, more hidebound elements of their platforms. In France, the National Front has made significant gains by championing economic security for the working class in language more commonly associated with the left. This malleability allows European far-right movements to attract young, white voters who might otherwise be wary of them.
It’s not difficult to imagine a near future in which young politicians adopt Trump’s flamboyant style and ideological leanings.
The same trick can work in the United States. In fact, it’s already starting to work, thanks to the Donald Trump candidacy.
For a Republican presidential frontrunner, Trump is uniquely disinterested in traditional conservative pieties. He’s a relative moderate on same-sex marriage and reproductive choice, and his “Make America Great Again” message is perfectly modulated for white, working-class voters who fear losing what’s left of their economic security. He’s not a hard-line conservative in the traditional sense, but he is most certainly a hard-line nationalist; in fact, he’s so far out there that National Front leader Marine Le Pen has publicly distanced herself from him.
And yet rather than alienating both moderate conservatives and orthodox Reaganites, Trump is drawing in support from both. That’s true even among the youngest voting bloc. A December poll from Harvard found that young Republicans want Trump to be their party’s nominee, and exit polls from the New Hampshire primary found Trump performing best (by a narrow margin) among Republican voters between the age of 18 and 29.
Trump is not likely to spearhead a reactionary millennial front, but his success in the Republican primary—including among young GOP voters—is suggestive. It’s not difficult to imagine a near future in which young politicians adopt Trump’s flamboyant style and ideological leanings, while pitching their message specifically to members of their own generation.
Parties like Germany’s AfD and France’s National Front are already actively cultivating younger leadership. AfD has a youth-centric wing called Young Alternative, and National Front has elevated 26-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to become one of the youngest parliamentarians in modern French history. Expect Trump to draw in similar young talent through the force of his example.
A counter-movement is especially likely because dozens of states have passed new restrictions on voting over the past few years, aided in part by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that voided sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Voter ID legislation and similar measures have tended to disproportionately affect voters of color, partially restoring the monopoly on political decision-making that white voters have held for centuries. As a result, whites are all but guaranteed electoral supremacy even as they become a minority.
It’s not too late to do something about that. Liberals might be able to check this nascent reaction before it reaches maturity, but first they need to dispense with their panglossian belief in the inevitability of progress. Living in a society means reconciling oneself to the grimy work of politics, not retreating into the fantasy that history will take care of itself.
Lead image: National Front leader Marine Le Pen, surrounded by her young fans.