The Kids Have Their Say

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The landslide victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico’s presidential elections comes two months after the startling return to power in Malaysia of Mahathir Mohamad and, on a smaller scale, a week after the wholly unexpected triumph in a New York Democratic primary of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old novice politician.

What’s strikingly common to the rise of Obrador, Mohamad, Ocasio-Cortez and many other disparate figures is their fervent support among young voters. Many youth today feel cheated of a better future by their leaders. And their frustrations are sparking a massive generational renewal in politics — if one largely ignored so far by a mainstream media that’s unable to see that the suave, globally networked, technocratic leaders it has supported are viewed as failures or hoaxes by many young people.

Lecturing at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City earlier this year, I heard of the furious student protests there in 2011, which forced then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto to seek shelter in a bathroom. Hailed by the Economist as a “charismatic reformer,” and praised by Tony Blair for putting Mexico on the right path, Peña Nieto turned out to be his country’s most unpopular president in decades.

The student movement against inept politicians like him developed into Wikipolitica, a coalition of young men and women striving for accountability in electoral politics. Likewise, political energies imperceptibly built up in Malaysia, where in May young people — 40 percent of the electorate — helped unseat their outrageously sleazy prime minister, Najib Razak.

Shadowed by public suspicion since 2006, when two of his bodyguards murdered a Mongolian model, Najib was still being described in 2010 by the Economist as “a British-educated economist” who was supposedly a “more sure-footed, and less scandal-prone, leader than many expected.” Najib is now accused of purloining nearly $700 million from the state exchequer, spending part of it on Hermes bags for his wife. (He denies the charges.)

The general loathing of venal, nepotistic and unaccountable elites grew so intense in Malaysia that it overcame even the country’s entrenched loyalties and patronage networks that had, as in Mexico, kept the same party in power for decades.

Disaffected with established parties, young people have suddenly emerged as a potent force capable of pulling off extraordinary political upsets. Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a heavily favored 19-year incumbent in New York, was an activist in Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, which itself seemed almost entirely driven by young Americans.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s failure to bring enough young voters to the polls contributed to her defeat by Donald Trump. At the same time, people under the age of 30 made the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon a credible presidential candidate in the French presidential election.

Young people in Britain also turned out to vote in the 2017 U.K. general election in greater numbers than at any other point in recent decades; they helped transform Jeremy Corbyn from a marginal activist into a potential prime minister.

There’s no question that disillusionment with a socioeconomic system that distributes its benefits very narrowly has been driving the young to seek remedies found on the left of the political spectrum. In a 2016 poll conducted by Harvard University, 51 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 rejected capitalism, and a third came out in support of socialism.

Of course, what people mean by socialism in the U.S. is  what many capitalist societies in the West, and some in the non-West, already have: high taxes on the rich, universal healthcare, public education and tuition-free college. Burdened with debt, many young people are simply seeking an end to the financial insecurity that makes even immemorial human practices — raising a family, for instance — so arduous. Elsewhere, the young are looking for efficient administrators who use public funds to invest in infrastructure rather than private bling.

Blaming socialism for Stalin’s gulag won’t help anyone understand the subjective experience of a generation coming of age in grossly unfair and unequal societies. Nor will conventional ideological divisions explain why so many voters in their 20s have invested their faith in grandfatherly leaders: Obrador (64), Corbyn (69), Sanders (76), Melenchon (66) and Mahathir (a sprightly 92).

These outspoken men are seen by their followers as incorruptible, untainted by the compromises of slick politicians beholden to special interests and dominant lobbies. But, though invested with great hopes, they are unlikely to be allowed to become despots. Mohamad, an autocrat during his previous stint in power, now insists on the “rule of law.” The politicized young men and women that brought Corbyn out of obscurity are now pushing him to reverse his pro-Brexit policy.  

The gerontocrats knows the youthful dynamic that has empowered them could just as easily turn against them. Contrary to many of its obituaries, democracy is being revitalized by the young — infused with a contrarian energy after decades of a complacent consensus among the middle-aged and the well-off. Political-party mechanisms will have to grow more responsive to it, or risk becoming rapidly obsolete.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.