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12 November 2015

The Millennial Dialogue's Austrian findings signal polarisation among the young

Posted by: Fabio Wolkenstein, Researcher at the London School Of Economics and Political Science


By and large, Austrian millennials are not very interested in conventional politics. Nor do they believe that politicians care much about their views. And even though most of them are fairly optimistic about the future, there exists a pervasive sense that politics plays a minor role in shaping that future.

Perhaps with the exception of their general optimism about the future, then, Austrian millennials are not very different from their counterparts in other European countries. But there is one important sense in which Austrian millennials appear to stand out: they are exceptionally politically polarised. This polarisation deserves special attention, not least because successful progressive strategies to speak to millennials require a sound understanding of their political orientations.

What does “polarisation” mean exactly? Most importantly, it means that millennials divide into groups with radically different electoral preferences. Of the 79% of Austrian millennials who said they would vote if there was an election tomorrow, 19% would vote for the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), while 17% would vote for the Greens. So the two strongest parties among millennials would be parties that occupy diametrically opposed positions in the Austrian political spectrum.

The qualitative part of the study reinforces the impression of politically polarisation. Deep divisions emerge especially when it comes to attitudes about immigration—a particularly salient topic these days. Put simply, while some millennials think that all of those people presently migrating to Europe deserve help, others are outspoken about the need for a more restrictive immigration regime, one that prioritises the preferences and needs of Austrians. These contrasting positions map neatly onto the respective agendas of the Greens and the FPÖ.

Of course, one must be cautious not to overstate this tendency to vacate the political centre. After all, the majority of millennials would still vote for parties that stand ideologically between the FPÖ and the Greens. And at least according to the survey findings, the long-established centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) is as popular among millennials as the Greens. But the disproportionate attractiveness of the FPÖ and the Greens for millennials should give progressives pause. Who among the millennials do these parties attract, and how?

A robust finding in research on Austrian politics is that Green voters are usually better educated and economically well-off, while those who vote for the FPÖ tend to have lower educational attainment and fewer economic resources. Using political science terminology, one may say that the former are “winners of globalisation”, while the latter are “losers of globalisation”. Those “losers of globalisation” feel particularly pressured by cultural threats, deprivation or the expectation of deprivation. This makes them more prone to vote for parties like the FPÖ, which offer protectionist closed-borders scenarios and pledge to “put our people first”. On the other hand, the “winners” of globalisation are naturally drawn to parties like the Greens, which promote a cosmopolitan and multicultural vision of society while putting little emphasis on economic policy.

None of this is big news, to be sure. But it is important to understand that there are many millennials among those “winners” and “losers” of globalisation in Austria. It is important to understand, that is, that Austrian millennials are not a homogenous collective, but a fragmented group whose members have very different socio-economic backgrounds and political preferences.

The forward-looking task for progressives is then to both take the differences between different sub-groups of millennials seriously and offer a comprehensive vision for millennials as a whole. This is by no means an easy task. Above all, effectively responding to concerns of those who feel threatened by immigration and economic stress will require redefining progressives’ interpretation of cosmopolitan and multicultural ideals. But the alternative—trying to speak only to some while neglecting others—is a political non-starter if the progressive political project is to mobilise young people for years to come. If the past has anything to teach us, moreover, progressive politics can accommodate the demands of the highly educated and the working-class alike.