Following the political earthquakes of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, commentators tried to get a better understanding of who was leading this seismic change in politics. A picture quickly emerged: angry, working class (“left behind”) men were the driving force of right-wing populism. But a year of bruising elections in Europe has highlighted an uncomfortable truth—support for the far right is far more widespread then angry, old, white working class men.
Last Sunday (Sept 24), German voters put a far-right party into parliament for the first time since the Second World War. Right-wing nationalists Alternative for Germany (AFD) won 13% of the vote, easily overcoming the 5% threshold needed to enter the German Bundestag. A previous study (link in German) showed that AFD supporters come from different social classes, including workers, families with above-average incomes, and even academics. The study concluded that what was common among AFD voters was their dislike for Angela Merkel’s so-called open-door policy to refugees.
A snapshot of where AFD voters came from highlighted the party’s ability to win over voters from a wide array of political affiliations. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (and its sister party the Christian Social Union) lost over one million voters to the AFD. But it wasn’t just right-wing voters who switched to the AFD; the center left Social Democrat lost over 500,000 (or 8.6%) of its 2013 voters to the AFD, the far left Left Party lost 420,000 (11%), and the Greens saw 50,000 defections (0.84%). Polling also showed that the AFD’s received the most votes among voters aged 33 to 44-year-old and that the party had done well with workers, and even managed to win over 10% of support from white-collar workers.
The AFD’s widespread support isn’t particularly surprising or unique. Far-right populism has always been dependent on a fragile coalition of voters—wealthy professionals, disaffected workers, and extremists—to break out of the margins and succeed. While white working class discontent is an important driving force for populism, so is anger from wealthy suburbanites and millennials.
In France, the far-right Front National (FN) enjoyed support from almost 40% of voters aged 18-24-year-old in the run up to the election. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the FN, courted young voters by taking up traditionally left-wing causes, such as women’s rights, and championing the welfare state (albeit for French citizens, and not foreigners). At the end of the first round of the election, 21% of young people cast their vote for Le Pen (young voters had broken for the far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round). But by the second round of voting, which saw Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, the former won 34% (paywall) of the vote among 18-24-year-old.
A similar dynamic was found during the Dutch and Austrian elections. In the Netherlands, voters aged over-65 (paywall) were the least likely age group to support far right politician Geert Wilders. In Austria, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer managed to win 42% of voters (pdf) aged 29 or under. When that was broken down by gender, Hofer won the majority of male voters aged 29 or under (53%) and the majority of male voters aged 30-59-years-old (58%).
The far right’s support among the young goes much further than electoral politics. From France to Austria, a street-based neo-fascist movement—known as the “identitarian movement”—has taken hold. Identitarians, dubbed as far right hipsters, have occupied mosques, blocked roads in Calais to protest the refugee camp there, and hung a banner reading “secure borders, secure future” from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Most recently, the group chartered a ship to troll refugee rescue missions at sea
It’s not just men shoring up right-wing populists. Le Pen was backed by a quiet army of women. Le Pen’s attempts to rebrand her party has clearly had an effect on women; a study by French pollster Ifop found that women made up 48% of voters who have voted for the FN previously. Women played an important role in the US too. While women did vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, white women did not. Overall, 52% of white women voted to elect Donald Trump. That figure jumps to 62% when looking at non-college-educated women.
Trump didn’t just have the support of white women—he was also backed by rich Americans (paywall). The vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class (according to one poll, a third of supporters earned between $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more). This didn’t change much during the election, with Clinton actually winning more voters earning $49,999 or under. Both at the primaries and during the election, the core of Trump’s support base was affluent Americans.
The data highlights the trouble with using education to measure the working class. While Trump did win with voters without college educations, these voters were still affluent. One in five white Trump supporters without college degrees had a household income over $100,000. And nearly 60% of white Trump voters without college degrees were in the top half of the income distribution.
The same narrative of the white working class was widely used to explain Brexit, but this accepted wisdom ignored the decisive vote for leaving the European Union among wealthy suburbanite living in southern England. Studies have shown that Brexit occurred because of the malaise of a much larger portion of the population, including the middle class and relatively well educated.
Yes, angry, working class men disillusioned by globalization have supported right-wing populism. But so did the hipsters, the soccer moms, and well to do suburbanite, highlighting the deep chasms in societies across the Western world.