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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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.