This past weekend, Green parties in several European countries outperformed expectations and offered an antidote to the pro-populist narrative the far-right hoped for from the elections for European Parliament. Climate policy debates fueled election agendas across the political spectrum and topped political programs of mainstream leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance movement.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of climate change activists, galvanized by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, rallied in Europe to call for more climate action from governments. As a result, Green issues turned out new and unexpected voters, and gave voters frustrated with mainstream politics a productive way to use their vote.
In the U.S., climate change is an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party agenda. A recent poll suggests addressing climate change is a top issue for Democratic primary voters, senior Democrats continue to be confronted by young environmental activists, and 2020 candidates are weighing in with climate change proposals, including the Green New Deal. Though Europeans are generally more likely than Americans to see climate change a serious threat, Democrats hoping to win in 2020 should consider whether lessons from Europe’s “green wave” could help them expand their own appeal.
Green issues attracted all types of voters in Europe. Europe’s Green parties have been around for a long time, but typically are overshadowed by mainstream parties. This year, however, Green parties in Germany, Ireland and France saw big increases in their vote, on par with traditional parties’ results.
Support for the Greens was not limited to voters on the far left. Initial results indicate Greens picked up support from voters traditionally aligned with center-right and center-left, as well as non-voters and voters who are generally dissatisfied with the establishment. Green parties in Germany and France performed as well as or better than more traditional establishment political parties. The Greens in France finished ahead of the seasoned French Republicans. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s center-right party lost four times as many votes to the Greens as they did to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
One reason polls may have underestimated support for Green parties is that green issues are turning out younger, first-time, or typically disengaged voters. Turnout across Europe was up from 2014 and several observers suggest younger voters contributed to the increased figures. As Europe went to the polls on May 23, Teen Vogue featured a call from young European voters for older voters to listen to them on the climate crisis. The next day, young voters around Europe protested for climate action day with a point of highlighting the importance of voting in the European elections.
Green issues also appealed to voters frustrated with establishment politics, but without a place to channel their anger. Disillusionment with mainstream parties usually sends some voters to the far right, who couple their pushback on the elite with hate, fear and bigotry. For others, their disappointment keeps them at home — unwilling to cast a vote for extremists, but too disenchanted with traditional parties to show up against them. The Greens in Europe offered a welcome alternative home for voters angry with the status quo. In Ireland, the Green Party’s Election Day messaging on Facebook centered on using the vote to change: “You can vote to change the status quo. You can vote to shift the balance of power from those who don't care to those who do.”
Green messaging also amplified the wealthy’s contribution to environmental harm. In France, where President Macron faces working class “yellow vest” protests over a now rescinded fuel tax meant to address climate change, Green party messaging prioritized fighting climate change for the sake of the planet and the working class. In a video on Facebook, Green candidate Marie Toussaint’s said, “The first good reason for voting for the climate is that there is urgency. … The second good reason is for social equality. Because global warming today, it is caused by the richest and it strikes the poorest first.”
This language challenges similar attacks on the elite coming from far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen, whose weak policy on climate change focused on using borders to address climate change and the “visual pollution” caused by wind turbines.
Democrats should see what happened around green issues in Europe as an opportunity to expand their base at home. The European elections suggest that, apart from linear support on the issue from Democratic voters, an emphasis on climate change may send a signal to young, marginalized, disaffected or working-class voters that Democrats are willing to shake up the old ways of doing business.
If Democrats prioritize climate change as Greens and others did in Europe, they may find it is a potent way to get the attention of voters who have limited faith in mainstream parties and politics.