For more than half a century in the West, the category of youth has not only been associated with protest and rebellion – but the idea that each generation is more progressive than the last. Meanwhile, particularly in the English-speaking world, it is clear that age cohorts such as millennials and Gen Z hold distinctly radical views on issues like inequality and climate change.
On both sides of the Atlantic the trend is unmistakable. Younger Democrats preferred Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Age was the best determinant of whether someone voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the Brexit referendum. In the 2019 general election, when the Tories won a majority of 80, Labour still cruised to victory among those under 50. A year later 65% of Gen Z voters opted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump.
According to a report by the Institute for Economic Affairs – hardly cheerleaders for the left – 67% of Brits aged 18-34 would prefer to live in a socialist economy. Meanwhile 78% blamed capitalism for the housing crisis. In the United States, a 2018 poll by Gallup found that 45% of young Americans view capitalism favourably – down from 68% in 2010.
But while the evidence for ‘generation left’ is overwhelming in some countries, it’s important to highlight that, globally speaking, things are more complicated.
In Brazil, where Lula Da Silva narrowly defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the recent presidential election, the youth is shifting right on a host of issues. According to polling conducted in 2016, 54% of Brazilians held a high number of conservative opinions, up from 49% in 2010. Another poll from 2018 showed that support for the death penalty stood at 58%, 10% higher than 2008. And the age cohort most in favour of capital punishment? Millennials. It’s unsurprising, then, that Bolsonaro appears to have dominated among that very same age cohort in last week’s second round of voting. And while Lula appears to have edged it among those aged 18-24, 44 % of Gen Z plumping for someone who defends a historic military dictatorship is hardly congruent with ‘Zoomer socialism’.
Alongside the growth of conservative attitudes in Brazil, with millennials at its heart, is a massive growth in the country’s evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal churches. The portion of Brazilians who identify as evangelicals has grown from 6.6% in 1980, to around 31% today. While 51% of Brazilians still identify as Catholic, that’s substantially down from 90% in 1970. By 2030 Catholics are expected to be a religious minority.
The social base for evangelical Christianity in Brazil is the country’s poor and people of colour. While around 2 in 3 US evangelicals are white, in Brazil the figure is closer to 1 in 3. Yet despite drawing from the country’s working class, 70% of evangelicals supported Bolsonaro in 2018 – with 65% voting for him again this year. The increased political influence such communities will exercise over the coming decades, alongside young adults embracing more conservative attitudes, is worrying the Brazilian left. While Bolsonaro lost the race for the Presidency, the wider popularity of Bolsonarismo meant his party took the most seats in both chambers of Congress.
Religious Fundamentalism in Israel
The growth of overt religiosity, and its influence within a democratic state, extends beyond just Brazil. Another example is the United States, which is becoming both less religious (fewer people believe or attend church) and more religiously strict (those who do believe are becoming more devout). This was best captured in polling conducted in 2020. It found that 26% of Americans agree that “even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation”, up from 18% six years earlier. Widespread liberal religious practice is giving way to either non-belief or fundamentalism.
That same trend is also visible in Israel. In 1948 ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews accounted for just 1% of the country’s population. Yet today, as a result of higher fertility rates among those communities (the number of children per Haredi woman is 7.2) they comprise 13% of the Israeli Jewish population, and a quarter of Israeli Jewish school children. Their numbers are presently doubling every 16 years and, according to the country’s National Economic Council, 1 in 3 Israeli Jews will be Haredi by 2050.
This is starting to have extraordinary consequences for the country’s politics. 36% of Haredim view democracy as incompatible with a Jewish state (far higher than secular and liberal Jews). Meanwhile 89% of Haredim agree that Halakha (Jewish religious laws) should take priority over democratic principles – a proposition which only 1% of secular Jews agree with. So while most Jews agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state, they profoundly disagree regarding what should happen if democratic principles collide with theological doctrine. Ultra-Orthodox Jews say religious law is of far greater importance – and they are set to only become more influential in the coming decades.
Such shifts offer context for the likely coalition set to govern Israel following the recent elections. Alongside Netanyahu’s Likud party, it would consist of three other partners – all religious and on the right. These include United Torah Judaism and Shas, ultra-orthodox parties who bar women from standing for public office, and a newcomer: the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party.
One of the leading figures in Religious Zionism is Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007. At 16 he joined Meir Kahane’s Kach group, an ultra-nationalist group that was later proscribed under anti-terrorism laws. Ben-Gvir is also notorious for hanging a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994, on his wall (it was reportedly taken down in 2020). Bezalel Smotrich, the party’s chair, wants to incorporate religious law, and opposes not only Jewish-Palestinian co-existence (in 2016 he justified the separation of Jews and Arabs in maternity wards for example) but also LGBT rights.
Rather than an aberration, such views – long held by junior partners in any conservative coalition – will increasingly take centre stage.
The growth of Haredi communities is the demographic basis for ultra-nationalist hegemony. While 60% of Israelis now identify as right-wing, that figure rises to 70% among the young. Meanwhile a 2021 study of 16-18 year-olds found that 66% of Ultra-orthodox Jews “hated” Arabs. It’s no surprise, then, that younger people are the ‘energy’ – as one young religious Zionist Israeli put it – of an increasingly far-right, supremacist movement.
While younger people in the UK, US and elsewhere are more likely to hold progressive views, and support progressive politicians and causes, the opposite is true in Brazil, Israel and elsewhere. Indeed in a world of low to no growth, geopolitical fragmentation and climate crisis, Israel offers a glimpse of how a secular state can start to resemble a theocracy. The 21st century may see the reinvigoration of socialist politics. Indeed in many countries that has already begun. But we will also witness the growing influence of religious fundamentalists in public life. Should the left to ignore that, while adopting a fatalistic view of progressive values and the young, it would be all the weaker for it. There is no reason reactionary politics can’t flourish this century given the multitude of challenges humanity faces.