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Is Pensioner Populism Here to Stay?

It is often assumed that the rise of populism in Western democracies is primarily a response to economic insecurity and anger toward privileged elites. But the fact is that neither of those sentiments can be understood without also accounting for the political consequences of population aging.

MILAN – The right-wing populism that has emerged in many Western democracies in recent years could turn out to be much more than a blip on the political landscape. Beyond the Great Recession and the migration crisis, both of which created fertile ground for populist parties, the aging of the West’s population will continue to alter political power dynamics in populists’ favor.

It turns out that older voters are rather sympathetic to nationalist movements. Older Britons voted disproportionately in favor of leaving the European Union, and older Americans delivered the US presidency to Donald Trump. Neither the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland nor Fidesz in Hungary would be in power without the enthusiastic support of the elderly. And in Italy, the League has succeeded in large part by exploiting the discontent of Northern Italy’s seniors. Among today’s populists, only Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) – and possibly Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – relies on younger voters.

Next spring, this age-driven voting pattern could drive the outcome of the European Parliament election. According to recent studies, older Europeans – especially those with less education – are more suspicious of the European project and less trusting of the European Parliament than younger Europeans are. This is surprising, given that memories of World War II and its legacy should be fresher for older generations. Nevertheless, their skepticism toward democratic EU institutions may explain their receptiveness to authoritarian leaders.