Young voters are more politically up-for-grabs than one would think. They are more likely to favor same-sex marriage, and are unreceptive to the kind of fear of big government/socialized medicine political shorthand that is commonplace in conservative discourse (the scare words don’t scare them). But young voters are also closely divided on immigration policy and a narrow majority favor restricting most abortions. So the good news is that the opinions of millennials are more complicated than the headlines. The bad news is that no one on the right knows how to reach the millennials who hold some center right opinions.
One potentially tempting approach for reaching these voters is libertarianism. This has superficial plausibility. Libertarianism has the virtue of clarity, which seems especially virtuous to youth. It also seems to fit with the low trust millennials put in social institutions generally (why trust big government any more than you would anyone else?).
The problem is that the millennials, in their social atomization, will (like the rest of us) end up having to depend on somebody sometime. If they know they can turn to no one else, they will turn ever more often to the government. That is why the millennials’ combination of low social trust and friendliness (in the abstract) toward bigger government is only a seeming contradiction. Economic vulnerability and social mistrust is fertile ground for bigger and more intrusive government. Millennials already feel on their own. You can’t get them on your side simply by telling them that you will leave them more on their own by cutting the governmenteven if you tell them that they will be better off as a result. Given a choice between social democracy and being left on their own, most millennials will choose social democracy.
That doesn’t mean that a distrust of government doesn’t have a place. It just has to be a distrust of omnicompetent government rather than effective government. And this distrust needs to be complemented by policies that seek to facilitate (but cannot by themselves produce) a more connected life for millennials. Tax policy can be reformed to increase the take-home pay and improve the work incentives of parents. Employment policy can be reformed to connect the long-term unemployed to the job market.
Contrast this to libertarian Republican Rand Paul’s tax plan, which would increase the tax liability of working parents at or near the earnings median. A report by the College Republicans revealed that 20 percent of millennials had put off getting married because of economic anxieties. If the center right can defend the universal good of a more prosperous and more connected life, then conservatives have a chance to make a case for limited government politics. We won’t win those millennials over if we promise them a tax increase if they get married and have children.
But discussions of policy agenda are futile by themselves. The transmission belt between center right ideas and the lives of many millennial voters is either broken or nonexistent. Among earlier generations, conservatives could have hoped that ideas like the suspicion of “big government” would have passed down through the institutions of churches and families. But now, because of demographic trends, fewer millenials come from families that have had any affiliation with the center right.
In the past, if nothing else, there was always the mass media. People sat through television commercials, and the norms of the network news meant that conservative ideas would occasionally have to be covered with something that resembled fairness. But now the audience for television (and especially the network news) tends to skew older.
Many millennials might still have “conservative” inclinations. They might think that late-term abortion is horrible, that marginal income tax rates much above 50 percent are unfair, and that it is wrong to cancel people’s health insurance that they like and make them buy more expensive coverage that they don’t want.
But those conservative inclinations won’t influence voting if they are not connected to a comprehensible agenda and a set of sympathetic political personalities. The challenge is that many millennials get much of their news from either entertainment industry sources or from social media that don’t follow even the norms of the “liberal” mainstream media.
While many millennials might not take an active interest in the news, their politically active peers will more likely be on the left. That means that the political content of many millennial’s social media streams will be some variation of left-wing partisanshipwhether wonkish or satirical, worshipful of the left’s latest darling or demonizing of the left’s latest chosen villain. Inside that social media stream, it won’t matter how good your ideas are. They will be either ignored (in which case they might as well not exist) or they will be distorted beyond recognition. Reaching Americans inside that media stream is the communications challenge of the moment.
Over on twitter, Slate’s David Weigel wrote that “The scarier things look for Dems in 2014, the more pieces we’ll see about gaffes from random GOP state legislators.” That strategy won’t save red state Democratic senators in 2014. Too many of the likely voters in those races have at least some history of voting center right. But the strategy that Weigel describes does succeed in shaping the worldviews of younger voters every day. One can hardly blame those younger voters. We have never broken through to actually talk to them (and it is not like the most prominent recent representatives of the center right have had much to say).
Back in the mid-1960s, after the defeat of Barry Goldwater, it seemed like the center right was on the verge of permanent marginalization. Conservatives were able to win over voters from the center-left coalition using the media of that day to address the concerns of that day. Many working-class white Democrats who considered conservative Republicans to be ancestral enemies and representatives of economic privilege ended up voting for Ronald Reagan. Today’s conservatives face different voters, different issues, and a different media environment, but it is really the same challenge. It is the challenge of finding the common ground and explaining how our ideas are consistent with the principles of many millennials and how conservative policies address their concerns. It is the challenge of actually talking to them (which is much harder than it sounds). A policy agenda is thankfully taking shape. What we lack are the social and communication tools. No investment in reaching these millennials can be too large and it cannot come too soon.