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To Attract Millennials, GOP Must Dial Back the Social Conservatism To Attract Millennials, GOP Must Dial Back the Social Conservatism

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Off to the Races

To Attract Millennials, GOP Must Dial Back the Social Conservatism

Placating the cultural and deeply religious elements within the Republican Party risks alienating the electorate of the future.

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(Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

Quite a stir was created by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics survey of millennials last week.

Fifty-six percent of Americans ages 18-29 disapproved of the Affordable Care Act, the poll found; when it was worded as “Obamacare,” the disapproval was 1 point higher. And less than a third planned to buy health insurance from an exchange.

 

The premium payments of healthy people, many of them young, are essential to the success of the program, given that no exclusions are permitted for preexisting medical conditions.

This generation is highly skeptical of the effectiveness of government in terms of solving important problems.

The poll, the 24th such survey since 2000, also indicated that President Obama’s job-approval rating had dropped to 41 percent, about the same as the president’s approval rating among the population as a whole, with 54 percent disapproving. The poll also found that a surprising 47 percent of millennials would recall Obama if they could; 46 percent would not. For a group that has been among Obama’s staunchest supporters, these numbers must be awfully dismaying for the president and his supporters.

 

Members of Congress could take little solace from the survey, either; 52 percent of the poll’s respondents said they would vote to recall all members of Congress, and 45 percent said they would recall their own member (though not by name). Only 35 percent approved of the job of Democrats in Congress (59 percent disapproved), and worse yet, only 19 percent approved of the job of Republicans in Congress (75 percent disapproved).

My impression from various polls, focus groups, dozens of visits to college campuses, and conversations with young people over the last few years is that, unlike conservatives, this generation does not hate government. And unlike liberals, they don’t love government, either. Rather, this generation is highly skeptical of the effectiveness of government in terms of solving important problems.

This is logical when you think of the life experiences and formative views of government younger Americans have. Some of their earliest impressions of the federal government surrounded the highly controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ended relatively inauspiciously. Then there was the financial crisis of 2008 and resulting recession and prolonged downturn, one that was aptly described by my friend, economist Sid Jones, as “the longest, deepest, and most diffused” economic downturn since the Great Depression. Given that the financial crisis that triggered the downturn was due in large part to a failure to adequately regulate the financial markets, the result of policy decisions made by presidents and Congresses of both parties over the past few decades, there is good reason for millennials’ skepticism. More recently, the threat and occasionally the reality of government shutdowns, near-defaults on the national debt, and most recently the poorly planned and disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act has further undermined confidence in the ability of the federal government to do anything right.

The conservative positions on social and cultural issues that have come to be dominant in the Republican Party in recent years run precisely against the grain of this new generation that is maturing politically.
 

To any liberal or Democrat who believes in the efficacy of government—that government is a vehicle for effecting positive changes in people’s lives—these numbers should cause deep consternation. They are dark clouds on the horizon for the concept of an activist government. At the same time, any conservative or Republican looking at these same numbers with hope of support for limited or minimalist government must confront other findings that show that while this generation has a healthy—or unhealthy, depending upon your perspective—view of government, millennials also have a profound streak of libertarianism. Specifically, the conservative positions on social and cultural issues that have come to be dominant in the Republican Party in recent years run precisely against the grain of this new generation that is maturing politically.

One national conservative leader recently told me about visiting campus chapters of a national, very conservative organization and canvassing these conservative student activists about issues. Within their ranks, he could not find any that opposed same-sex marriage. Among younger conservatives, the perennial applause line of wanting “government out of our lives” now extends to every room in the house and the ob-gyn’s office as well. The GOP’s strict opposition to abortion and same-sex marriages, along with its other unambiguous conservative positions, severely jeopardizes any progress that conservatives and Republicans can hope to make from their skepticism of the effectiveness of government.

This situation creates quite a quandary for Republican leaders, elected officials, and campaign strategists because it means making difficult and unpleasant choices. To placate the cultural and deeply religious elements within the Republican Party is to alienate the electorate of the future. With most Americans forming their voting patterns and partisan leanings relatively early in life, this effectively means that taking the current path of least resistance for the GOP (i.e. placating social conservatives) may condemn the party to great difficulty in the future.

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Republican operatives concerned about these issues aren’t suggesting an immediate or wholesale change in party positions as much as they are advising their party to provoke fewer fights on such cultural issues, to talk about those issues less, and to lower the volume. It isn’t just the young who are increasingly being turned off by the Republican Party’s positions on these issues; the same is true for many women voters, who make up 53 percent of the electorate, and self-described moderates, who constitute 40 percent. Some may retort that emphasis on these issues is necessary to win and get out a strong vote from the GOP base, but does anyone really think that conservative evangelical voters, for example, are going to start voting Democratic if Republicans talk about those issues less?

The extent to which the party loses a little on turnout by the base would probably be offset by less fierce opposition from those female, younger, and moderate voters. For Republicans, this is a trade-off worth making.

World of Watchcraft

This article appears in the December 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Youth Quake.

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