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.

William A. Murphy II, of Raleigh, N.C., a member of the Morehouse College 2002 graduating class, wears a customized cap during commencement ceremonies May 19, 2002 in Atlanta.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Dec. 9, 2013, 5:18 p.m.

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.

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.

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