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Justin Trudeau’s bleak poll numbers are part of a global trend as young voters reject incumbents

In democracies around the world, voters aged 18-34 are abandoning the incumbent in favour of opposition parties, often choosing populist-style politicians. Why? Blame the broken social contract.
If Canada’s federal Liberals want to win back young people, they must admit past mistakes, writes the author

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals are largely regarded to be running on fumes, particularly in the aftermath of the stunning Liberal byelection loss in Toronto—St. Paul’s. The upset is a vivid signal that Canadians are ready for change.

At first blush, this may seem just part of the cyclical nature of politics. Every incumbent collects baggage, and this Liberal government and its leader have acquired more than their fair share. Sooner or later every government wears out its welcome and voters give another party the chance to do better.

But that doesn’t entirely explain the moment. Polls and elections around the world in several jurisdictions suggest voters are turning against incumbents in general, and looking to more radical and populist alternatives. Even more notable, young voters are leaving the centre.

In democracies around the world, voters aged 18-34 are abandoning the incumbent in favour of opposition parties, often choosing populist-style politicians who offer clear and simple answers to complex problems.

Whether it’s left- or right-of-centre incumbents falling out of favour, youth and marginalized people are leading the charge for the exits and kicking the tires on an alternative party.


The kids are not alright

It’s clear voters in general, particularly those at the margins—whether social, political or economic—believe the social contract has failed them. Issues that include the cost-of-living crisis, housing affordability, education costs, upward mobility, stalled climate action, the effects of globalization, immigration rates, the opioid crisis, access to health care, the power of multinational corporations, among many others, have created a sense that incumbents lack the ability or the will to govern in their interests.

Recent polling results from Canada and beyond illustrate the trend. A new poll from Research Co. shows that NDP’s lead in British Columbia is narrowing, with David Eby’s party just six points ahead of John Rustad’s socially conservative, climate-skeptical Conservatives.

Among decided 18- to 34-year-old voters, the two parties are in a statistical tie—a dramatic change from the start of the year, when the NDP held a double-digit lead with the same voters.

It’s similar at the federal level. If a vote were held today, 36 per cent of voters aged 18-34 would vote Conservative, more than any other party, according to one recent poll from Leger. This is a stunning reversal from previous elections won by the Liberals, in part due to strong youth support.

Examples of the pattern exist beyond Canada. In the United States, young voters from marginalized communities in particular are less likely to support President Joe Biden than previously. Given the alternative, the decline is a remarkable indictment.

The scene in Europe

The phenomenon isn’t limited to the English-speaking world.

Young German voters have turned away from progressive politicians in favour of right-wing parties like the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and even far-right parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Deutschland).

With legislative elections about to be held in France, Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance is polling a distant third. Marine Le Pen’s radical right National Rally, with its 28-year-old president, is comfortably in front and could control a majority in co-operation with other right-of-centre parties.

A recent Ipsos poll suggests younger French voters are leading the charge away from the centre, with more than four in 10 voters aged 18-34 indicating their support for Le Pen.

In short, mainstream and incumbent parties are in trouble around the world among younger voters increasingly attracted to more radical and populist alternatives.

The broken social contract

Many voters seemingly have a deep sense of grievance about the world they live in. Those from marginalized backgrounds no longer trust incumbent and mainstream parties to do what’s needed to keep them safe, secure and optimistic about the future. This trust deficit leads people to become more receptive to politicians with clear and simple messages about what’s wrong and what they’ll do about it.

There’s a broad sense of powerlessness pervading much of the world. Global surveys suggest voters believe success is a function of forces outside their own control.

For those who can’t afford to buy homes or even secure stable housing, the gap between promise and fulfillment is vast and growing. Adding to the frustrations is the fact that the most dynamic regional economies and communities are often unaffordable, as Vancouver continues to demonstrate.

For those worried about how to secure a lucrative and rewarding career while paying for their education, the numbers are worrisome — debt loads are steadily increasing for graduates at all levels.

The social contract isn’t just about financial security.

The excesses of state security forces have led to the emergence of Black Lives Matter movements around the world, and yet incumbent governments continue to move slowly on police reform and armed forces are resistant to change.

For those worried about climate change, the contrast between present realities and government action is stark. Why vote for a party that claims to take climate change seriously if it doesn’t act?

The impact of COVID-19 had a big impact on the youngest in society.

They missed out on life-defining moments, as well as social, educational and economic opportunities, and have been trying to catch up. Those who were already financially comfortable, meanwhile, got ahead, working from home and tending their own gardens, literally and figuratively.

Again and again, it’s evident the social contract works relatively well for those who are already comfortable, but the future seems bleak for anyone outside that charmed group — including a disproportionate number of young people.

Fears that the game is rigged

A feature of democracy is its promise to the losers: you’ll have a chance to compete again next time around, and maybe you’ll do better. But what if, win or lose, you feel you never come out ahead? If the game seems rigged, why play?

Why not roll the dice on an alternative, and listen to someone who claims to know who’s to blame for the problems in your life and how to fix them?

If mainstream parties want to win back young people—whether Canada’s federal Liberals or politicians anywhere else in the world—they must admit past mistakes and give those who need help a reason to believe better times are ahead. Failing to do so means they risk being pulled in more radical directions like the Republican party in the U.S. or disappearing from relevance entirely.

New leaders won’t change anything unless they bring a radically new kind of leadership that truly repairs the woefully broken social contract to benefit young and marginalized voters.

Stewart Prest is a lecturer of political science at the University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.