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.