The stereotype of the “young violent male” on the right

The received view does not quite match the reality of these crucial "reluctant radicals".

Young, male and dangerous. Thugs driven by hatred; teenagers driven by a toxic mix of boredom and testosterone; young men dominated by hostility towards "difference". These are some of the stereotypes that exist today about right-wing populism in Europe. Stories of violent attacks, pictures of young men shouting at demonstrations, and articles by commentators concerned about youth unemployment fuelling a rise in right-wing populism across Europe have all encouraged such a picture to emerge.

The image isn’t entirely inaccurate. Online supporters (as a Demos report last year indicated) of populist right parties and movements are largely young and male, while academic research has at times supported the view that young men are more likely to vote for such parties. But this is far from the whole story—in fact, it’s only a minor part of the story and needs two serious qualifications.

Recognising the reluctant radicals

First, as we argue in Counterpoint’s new report on right-wing populism launched today, the received view does not quite match the crucial "reluctant radicals" – those uncertain, uncommitted supporters of right-wing populist parties, who, we find, make up a large proportion of those who vote for the populist right (at least 50 per cent for most countries in our pan-European comparison). These are the voters we need to understand: they are numerically important as a group and are possibly those who can most easily be pried away from the populist right.

For the reluctant radicals, the gender gap is often very small – using the European Social Survey, for instance, we find that 56 and 49 per cent of Norwegian reluctant radicals and Dutch reluctant radicals respectively are male. As for age, while for some parties we find that younger people are more likely to be reluctant radicals, for other parties – the True Finns, for instance – middle-aged people tend to fall into the category.

These features are not just confined to the reluctant radicals. Other research has – to some degree – a similar story to tell. Nonna Mayer has pointed out that, with the success of Marine Le Pen in France, the traditional Front National gender gap is narrowing. In the UK, academic research has demonstrated that BNP supporters tend to be older than average. The findings are not consistent and the picture is complex; but this research seriously undermines the ‘young men’ stereotype. And, even more to the point, highlights that this is a diverse group that needs to be understood in context and in depth.

Attitudes, not action

Second, a clear distinction needs to be made between right-wing populist attitudes (on crime, immigration, security, Europe) and the action of voting for a right-wing populist party. Even where young men are more likely to vote for the populist right, this is not necessarily down to younger people having more radical attitudes than older people, nor men having more radical attitudes than women.

Take a commonly used example of right-wing populist attitudes: antipathy to immigration. Our study analyses those people who have views in line with the populist right on immigration but who did not vote for a right-wing populist party (the ‘potential radicals’). We find that, in general, older people tend to be potential radicals, while men are not more likely than women (in fact, in some cases are less likely) to fall into the potential category. This suggests that, where there are differences in voting patterns between younger men and others, this cannot be reduced to just differences in attitudes to immigration.

Again, other research points to a similar disparity between attitudes and action – as summarised by Cas Mudde in his review of gender differences with respect to right-wing populist attitudes in his influential Populist Right Radical Parties in Europe. Indeed, our results are also reflected in the recent YouGov poll for the Extremis project on whether Britons would vote for a party that advocated typical right-wing populist views – they find that 36 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women would be more likely to vote for a party that aimed to reduce the numbers of Muslim/presence of Islam in society.

Potential radicals: what holds them back?

Given these findings, there appears to be particularly large numbers of women and older people who have attitudes in line with the populist right but do not vote for populist right parties despite these attitudes. What holds them back? For older people, it is likely to be a longstanding attachment to the traditional mainstream parties; for women, the reasons are more mysterious. But finding an explanation may well hold the key to dissuading people from turning to the populist right.

Right-wing populism would be easier to confront if men were the fundamental problem – it would allow us to diagnose the issue as distant and alien, a policy problem to be solved alongside disturbances such as the 2011 summer riots in England. Yet the stereotype of “young violent male” does not do justice to the political as well as the security threat these movements pose. They are not just a security issue – they go to the heart of our political institutions.

Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Getty Images
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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories