Can Conservatism Appeal to Young People?

There is a quote – endlessly repeated and often misattributed to Winston Churchill – that runs something like the following: If you are 20 and not a liberal, you have no heart. If you are 40 and not a conservative, you have no brain.


Taken on its own terms, this observation gives progressives a very narrow window of time in which to operate – something the Daily Kos appears to have recognized, in a rare moment of lucidity:

“Of course, we can’t make such a simplistic argument. We don’t think that more government is always best. In fact, even arguing over the size of the government is folding to a conservative narrative. But how can we begin to discuss politics in the political world of today without tripping over conservative buzz words? The honest truth is, we can’t.”

But there is hope for the progressive movement, according to our anonymous writer, in the following:

1.) The blogosphere more-or-less is ours. The right-wing attempts to match the left’s web presence has largely looked like our attempt to match their radio work. The web belongs to the young, and the young, at least for now, are with us.

2.) Satire is ours. Jon Stewart likes to deny his real-world impact, calling his show comedy. And it is. But it has great impact none-the-less. Stewart and Colbert have made a huge difference by exposing fraud and corruption. And most of this has been on the right. Even when they come at us, they come from the left. That kind of work, over time, builds values in the viewers that move them toward the left, like Limbaugh’s daily listeners eventually become Republicans. And the right has fallen prey to attempting their version of political satire. And, as you probably know, those attempts have been incredible failures.

3.) Academia remains reality-based, and that is good for us. Although I think the accusations of campus “liberal bias” are greatly exaggerated, issues like human rights, equality, and environmentalism are clear values of the liberal arts community. And these values are more than just issues for progressives. They go a long way in pointing toward a framework for thinking progressively.”

Now, obviously, there are a few things that strike me as a bit foolish about this. For one thing, calling Academia reality-based strikes me as similar to calling Marvin the Martian carbon-based.

However, there is definitely truth to some of this, and if the reaction to conservative articles about youth politics are any guide, the Left is especially defensive about the first point. Moreover, also judging by the comments left on those same articles, a lot of conservatives are in no hurry to reach out to youth voters, because they think young people are just a bunch of hedonistic little brats who are too dumb/inexperienced to understand anything (which didn’t seem to stop Ronald Reagan from winning a majority of the youth vote in 1984). Small wonder the Left is so confident.

However, they shouldn’t be. Much as progressives like to cite a recent Pew Poll showing that the younger generation inclines naturally towards social liberalism and government activism, two things stand out about that poll: Firstly, at the time it was taken, most of the massive failures in the Obama administration hadn’t happened yet. Secondly, the poll itself acknowledged that while the ideologies of young voters seemingly favored Democrats, those voters were increasingly becoming disenchanted with Democrats, and Republican registration was rising, even if active self-identification was not (according to the poll, youth voter registration currently stands at 54% Democrat, 40% Republican, up from 62%-30% after the 2008 election). Moreover, as I have noted elsewhere, the youth vote is not a homogenous group, and treating it as one is fundamentally mistaken. As such, I am not going to try to make broad statements about “the youth vote” here, but will rather confine my observations to what is seemingly the most problematic group of young people for the Right, IE college students.

It is undeniable that the Left has is much better at communicating with this group, and enjoys more institutional advantages than the Right has. That doesn’t necessarily translate to all youth voters – Scott Brown did fairly well among the youth in the aggregate – but the trickle-down effect of collegiate elitism is still something to be concerned about. So let me address the reasons why communication with college-age millennials, especially the kind that watch the Dailiy Show, has been so much easier for the Left.

This success at communication comes primarily from the second point cited by the Kos author above – this is a generation whose educated members, perhaps more than any other, have gotten their political views from intentionally ironic, biting and superfluously intellectual commentary. Moreover, because this generation is one of the more secular in recent memory, it lacks a moral compass rooted in rigid, religiously-based rules, though it hardly lacks a moral compass generally, and this is especially true among the collegiate lot.

This leads to an attitude that I have often observed in fellow young voters of this type, an attitude which believes that intellectual correctness and moral intuition are frequently (if not necessarily) at odds, and that the truth should win. To put it bluntly, this is a generation that would prefer to elect someone who is (by conventional standards) evil but brilliant than someone who is morally good hearted but stupid. This is at the root of the GOP’s communications problem, for the GOP has, especially in recent years, hitched its flag to the notion of being intellectually populist while at the same time being morally absolutist. Of course, this need not be the only strategy the GOP or the conservative movement use – Bill Buckley is an instructive exception – but its existence is a challenge.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this – to the extent that it is homogenous, my generation’s intellectual class is extremely different from previous ones at the cultural level, and some in ways that are worthy of criticism. I’m going to deal with two ways in which this difference manifests – firstly, the differences in culture, and secondly, the differences in demographics.

First, the cultural element. In his book The Battle, Arthur Brooks talks about how “earned success” makes people happier than just getting lots of unearned cash/goodies. But this is a generation that – as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out – has come to expect cash/goodies, unearned or otherwise, because of its systematic rearing under the concept of “self-esteem,” a concept with which the intellectual class is especially saturated, given that they excelled under an education system based around it. At any rate, everyone is a winner in this generation, or at least everyone thinks they are. What is more, as many exasperated conservative commentators continually point out, this is a generation that feels entitled, that refuses to make the usual tradeoffs, and that views itself as irrefutably superior to others, for no reason that these commentators can understand. “How,” these baby boomer conservatives ask, “can you ask us to make common cause with people like that?!

Easily. For one thing, note these passages in the article cited above:

“Some research studies indicate that the millennial generation’s great expectations stem from feelings of superiority. Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute and MonsterTrak, an online careers site, conducted a research study of 18- to 28-year-olds and found that nearly half had moderate to high superiority beliefs about themselves.”

“Millennials also want things spelled out clearly. Many flounder without precise guidelines but thrive in structured situations that provide clearly defined rules and the order that they crave. Managers will need to give step-by-step directions for handling everything from projects to voice-mail messages to client meetings.”

“Justin Pfister, the founder of Open Yard, an online retailer of sports equipment, believes he and his fellow millennials will resist having their expectations deflated. If employers fail to provide the opportunities and rewards millennials seek, he says, they’re likely to drop out of the corporate world as he did and become entrepreneurs.”

Now, to avoid seeming like the pushy millennial I am, I’m not going to pretend that these passages aren’t problematic. They are. However, I humbly submit that politically, they are less problematic than they first appear. Firstly, like all idiotic Leftist schemes, the “self-esteem” education appears to have had an unintended consequence, ie fostering a sense of superiority (as opposed to equality). Leaving aside the issue whether such a feeling is warranted, let me invite the reader to consider how any successful millennial with a feeling like this will react to progressive taxation, capital gains taxes, or any other redistribution of wealth. My guess is that the response will be apopleptic: “How dare that inferior bunch of bureaucrats tell me how to spend my money!

What about the “precise guidelines” and “structured situations” element? Maybe I’m being too clever by half, but this sounds more like the sort of thing Russell Kirk praised, or like Friedrich von Hayek’s rule of law. Millennials want predictability and order, and it only takes one look at the federal tax code to know how bad the institutional Left is at providing that, and barely half a glance at any Leftist doctrine of permanent revolution to know how much worse the intellectual Left is. This is a view fundamentally at odds with an economy dominated by favors, irrational dealmaking and cronyism of the type you see in Venezuela, Bolivia and Chicago.

Finally, what about that last quote? While the heightened expectations may be unrealistic, is there anything wrong with trying to create an environment where those expectations can be met through entrepreneurship? Absolutely not. Moreover, do you think an entrepreneurial generation that sets out to meet these high expectations will be able to tolerate half the inefficiency that the government and organized labor foists on businesses to prevent them from meeting high expectations? I don’t think so.

Having dealt with the cultural differences, then, this brings me to the most substantial obstacle the conservative movement faces with respect to the millennial generation – its demographics, a problem which afflicts more than just the college-age population. There’s no two ways about it – this generation is demographically diverse. As the Center for American Progress (for once) aptly notes:

“The diversity of this generation is as impressive as its size. Right now, Millennial adults are 60 percent white and 40 percent minority (18 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 3 percent other). And the proportion of minority Millennial adults will rise to 41 percent in 2012, 43 percent in 2016, and 44 percent in 2020 (21 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, 6 percent Asian, and 3 percent other). This shift should make the Millennial generation even more firmly progressive as it fully enters the electorate, since minorities are the most strongly progressive segment among Millennials.”

The last sentence will be especially ominous if it remains true through the foreseeable future, though I remain unconvinced that it will simply because it strikes me yet another oversimplification, and one that undermines the Leftist narrative of youthful enthusiasm more than it helps it. If it is true that minorities are more progressive than whites (and according to most demographic measures, they are), and if it is also true that minority Millennials are more progressive than white Millennials (which they apparently are), then the progressive advantage among young people can surely be chalked up more to old-fashioned racial politics than to any unique ability to speak to the young. Thus, if we view the younger generation as nothing but a collection of immutable racial groups, then the question of how to appeal to them as young people becomes completely irrelevant, since the demographic argument implicitly assumes that their racial identity takes precedence over their generational culture.

But it doesn’t. Why? Because, according to the same article, white millennials are significantly more progressive than their wider racial group traditionally would be. Logically, this indicates that there is a generation gap, and I would argue that we must first learn to speak to millennials generally before we can tailor our message to specific demographic subgroups. It is important to bridge racial gaps on the Right, but the question of how to do that is distinct from the question of how to bridge the generation gap, and should be treated as such. Moreover, the fact that there is a generation gap may give the Right some hope. After all, if white millennials can be persuaded to buck previous trends by swinging further to the Left, then there is every reason to believe it is possible for minority millennials to buck previous trends in the future by swinging further to the Right.

Whether this is likely, and how it might be done is another story. I wish I had an easy answer for it, but in the absence of a holy grail of youth outreach, such an answer is unlikely to be forthcoming. I will say that I think that treating them with respect rather than tokenism will prove to be successful, given how contemptuous millennials are of artificial differences (ie differences not based on their presumptively superior merit), and for that reason I suspect that the effectiveness of classically liberal language about color blindness will only increase in the coming years. Another area that may prove to be effective is the sort of locality-based campaigning that made the New Right of the 70’s and the 80’s such an effective force. A minority voter in Scarsdale is not the same person as a minority voter in Harlem, though both may vote Democratic, and if we are to sway their votes, we must familiarize ourselves with the issues that compel them to vote Democratic as Scarsdale and Harlem residents, which could very well be different issues. Under such a system, crafting a nationally applicable outreach strategy for minorities would not only be unnecessary, but impossible at best, and insulting and stereotypical at worst. Still, the problem of conservative outreach with young and minority voters isn’t going to solve itself. And make no mistake; I am not of the school that says we should compromise our principles to do it. Those principles may need restatement, but not revision. Whether that restatement is carried off successfully will be the enduring question when it comes time to woo my generation.


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