Joe Knippenberg brought this Mike Gerson column to my attention. Gerson argues that conservatives are going to have accommodate to the fact that younger voters are less religious and less culturally conservative than younger age cohorts. Here are some only somewhat on point responses drawn from personal observations that only apply to some young people:
1. Many young people, unless they have been socialized in a strongly center-right environment, or who have (for whatever reason) developed unusual reading habits, have never been exposed to a sympathetic explanation of pretty much any conservative view on pretty much any issue. They don’t watch right-leaning media, and to the extent that they are aware of its existence, know of it as the biased FOX NEWS (though they don’t really know what that means.) They practically don’t know that political talk radio exists. Most politics is carried on in what might as well be a foreign language. Romney is just a guy who they hear for a few minutes at a time making vague complaints about the economy. Obama must be sorta flawed (why else is the economy so bad?), but he is still basically one of the good guys. He is trying to offer an affordable college education through student laws and reliable health care coverage and he is for the little guy and he isn’t biased against minorities and he wants to save the planet from pollution and global warning.
2. For all that, many of these kids have pretty conservative instincts on quite a few issues ranging from abortion to taxes, to gun rights. They came to a lot of these opinions organically. They’ve known pregnant people and have gone through the ultrasound process or know people who have. They have a sense that the fetus (and especially the late stage fetus) is a human being who, as a general rule, should not be destroyed. Their opinions vary from the moderately pro-life (banning most abortions other than rape, incest, and threats to life of the mother) to moderately pro-choice (abortion legal in the first trimester, but no late term abortions except in the case of the mother’s life in danger.) The vast majority of them are to the pro-life side of the ROE status quo and to the pro-life side of President Obama. Almost none of them know this. Many of these kids have jobs and think of the money they earn as their own and extend the same respect to other people. They want to know that their tax money is being used wisely and don’t want to give up a penny more than they have to. They have no idea what the National Rifle Association is, but they’ve had to study the Bill of Rights a little. The part about the “right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” speaks for itself.
3. These right-leaning instincts have zero political salience at the moment. The Republican Party is the Other. Conservative spokesman are either absent or speak an incomprehensible dialect about the private sector and job creators and socialism and becoming like Europe. Some of them have seen Michael Moore movies. A lot more of them have seen Earth In The Balance. They don’t buy all of it. They are somewhat skeptical by nature, but the skepticism manifests itself as buying into heavily diluted versions of the narratives of those films. They haven’t seen 90 seconds (never mind 90 minutes) of a conservative argument embedded in media they choose to consume and pitched at their level of understanding.
4. Election season campaigns are generally the wrong time to try to win them over. Attitudes change more slowly than that. Before they will be willing to listen to a conservative candidate, they need some context. Sometimes this will mean raising the salience of an issue. This could mean exposing them to the idea of the legality late term abortion and on the humanity of the late stage fetus. Sometimes this means focusing on the good work that religious and other civil society institutions do and explaining why protecting the autonomy of such institutions from government is both protecting the rights of good people and good for society in general. Sometimes it will be introducing policies that young people will never have heard of elsewhere because most of them don’t read National Affairs and aren’t going to. It could mean explaining how they could have health care security and larger paychecks by going to an Indiana-style HSA/catastrophic coverage plan, instead of Obamacare forcing them to buy more expensive health care plans that they might not want. It could mean explaining something like Rick Perry’s plan for an inexpensive and expedited state college education. I could be Jim Manzi’s suggestion for higher economic growth and moderation in dealing with climate change. This is probably all too much for any presidential candidate (or a presidential candidate + congressional candidates + some governors) to accomplish in one campaign season. It is crucial for the audience to have background knowledge and a sense of the stakes. Candidates have to talk about a lot of things in a campaign, and most people devote only a little time to listening. If people don’t have some minimal background knowledge, they become overwhelmed and tune out. The ground has to be prepared.
5. The best approach is a personalist and sympathetic moralism. Issues need to be understood in terms of real people. Human beings that won’t be mutilated. College degrees that will be earned without crippling debt or higher taxes. Decent people being free to live their own religious beliefs and help others. The moralism is important too. These things matter and we should act on these things. But the kind of moralism is important. The focus should be on eliciting personal sympathy and the chance to take positive action in the medium-term – even if that just means their vote in the next election. You don’t have to explicitly condemn. If they buy into the argument, they’ll figure out for themselves who to condemn. The focus should be about getting the audience to stand up for themselves and for others.
6. How much of the Super-PAC money that went to fund redundant commercials attacking Gingrich in Iowa would have been better spent in the years between elections focusing on changing minds?