The first round of France's presidential election brought a major test of the appeal of a populist message. And in just a few weeks, French voters will choose between Emmanuel Macron, a young outsider with more global and market-oriented leanings, and a candidate who is the avatar of nationalist populism, Marine Le Pen.
The French election results, combined with fresh polling from Harvard's Institute of Politics, suggest that elements of the populist message may well be appealing to a younger generation that has grown distrustful of the establishment and other political and economic systems that have governed the world in which they have grown up.
On paper, Emmanuel Macron should be a candidate tailor-made for young voters. He himself is young. He pushes for more entrepreneurship, modernization, and a loosening of regulations that prevent young workers from working as they please when they please.
And yet, the data tell a different story. Exit polls in France show voters aged 18-24 were Macron's weakest age group, where the top-performing candidate was far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, garnering 30 percent of the youth vote. (Those uninitiated in the world of French politics can think of Mélenchon as France's extreme version of Bernie Sanders.)
Maybe that's not surprising. But behind Mélenchon comes none other than…Marine Le Pen, the other populist in the race. Le Pen is often described as "far-right" but certainly embraces nothing like right-of-center economic policy as we know it in the United States. Combined, the two establishment parties in France – the incumbent president's Socialist Party as well as the center-right Republican Party – earned only 19 percent of the vote.
In the United States, young people are far from enamored of their own populist and nationalist president. In Harvard's polling, only 32 percent approve of the job Trump has done as president, though that is a slightly better score than is given to Republicans in Congress (28 percent approval). On a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 meaning extremely unfavorable and 100 meaning extremely favorable, young people give Trump a below-average rating of 39, compared to Bernie Sanders, who comes in at a 59.
But consider perhaps the two issues where Donald Trump's rhetoric and that of Bernie Sanders have tended to overlap the most: avoiding engagement in foreign conflict and trade.
When polled on Donald Trump's agenda, though pluralities of young people oppose his policies on immigration and healthcare, there is one issue where Trump's position wins outright majority support, even among young Democrats: trade. Some 60 percent of young people agree that if we "crack down on countries that engage in illegal or unfair trade practices that hurt American workers," America would be better off. Only 14 percent of young people think there would be a personal negative impact of such a policy. This is not just a new Bernie-inspired view; in Harvard's 2010 poll, young people were asked if "government should protect American jobs, even at the expense of global free trade," and protectionism defeated free trade by a thirty point margin.
Furthermore, on the question of foreign military engagement, young people have moved even further away from supporting U.S. military intervention overseas. In 2010, only 24 percent of young people said that "In today's world, it is sometimes necessary to attack potentially hostile countries, rather than wait until we are attacked to respond." That number fell to only 21 percent in 2017. While Trump's actions as president have included proposing to "bomb the s*it out of ISIS" it has also included a harsh criticism of his own party's support for the Iraq War, putting him in some ways to the left of Hillary Clinton on that question. (Notably, Le Pen has criticized military action in Libya and Iraq, and spoke out against Trump's ordered strikes in Syria.)
In short, the "America First" message focused squarely on keeping American resources at home – economic and military – actually seems to resonate with young people. Of course, there are other components of "America First" that are miles away from where young people are, notably Trump's positions on immigration. But it is interesting to see that both in France and the U.S., there are pieces of the populist message that do seem to captivate the younger generation.
The case for why free trade and international engagement are valuable has simply not been made successfully to young voters, and their frustrations with that existing order have pushed them into the arms of, in some cases, terrifyingly extreme candidates. I do not think it is a coincidence that young people gravitated toward populist voices in the French election and that the two issue positions where Donald Trump and young voters seem to agree most – global engagement and trade – are rooted in populism.
Young voters may be growing up in an era of increased global connection, cooperation and commerce. But they're very open to politicians who tell them it is these very things that are keeping elites in power and keeping their generation down.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for The Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."