The Republican Party Needs Millennials to Survive

Conservatives can win over young Americans to our principles, but first we have to live by those principles.

Child covers his ears during a Trump campaign rally
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Some conservative national-security practitioners gathered recently to find common ground on the future. The meeting wasn’t, as described in The Washington Post, flooded with regretful signatories of various anti-Trump letters, recanting in the hopes of career advancement. In attendance were people who had served in the Trump administration and people who’d refused to serve, united by a desire to restore principled national-security policies. What follows is an abbreviated version of my paper for the gathering, which was on how to engage young Americans with conservative principles.

In my experience, conservative foundational beliefs appeal to our successors. We can win over young Americans to our principles, but first we have to live by those principles. Americans under age 30 voted for Democrats by a 35-point margin in 2018 in large part because we don’t.

Young Americans’ rejection of the Republican Party is not merely a short-term issue, perhaps even satisfying to conservatives who declined to vote or work for candidate and then President Donald Trump, because it will have longer-term effects: 59 percent of Millennial voters are now registered as Democrats. Party affiliation creates vestigial preference.

Nor should we be complacent that young Americans will age into conservatism. There’s actually no evidence of the phenomenon. As Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center concludes, “the differences we see across age groups have more to do with the unique historical circumstances in which they come of age.”

Americans under the age of 30 had as their formative experiences the era of terrorism, the mistakes of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial crisis, all of which they associate with the Republican Party. And they revile the depredations of Trump’s behavior and procedural contortions by Senate Republicans to partisan purposes (like the refusal to vote on the Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland).

What we as a conservative movement look like to young Americans is old, white, male, bigoted, and unprincipled—people who bray loudly at others breaking the rules but excuse ourselves doing so.

It is profoundly self-defeating to blame higher education or peer pressure for young Americans fleeing the Republican Party, as Paul Gottfried does. To say “Millennials vote for the Left because they have been conditioned to do so by social media, educational institutions, and their peers” is to consign our political movement to failure.

But to adopt Gottfried’s approach is worse than accepting failure: It is a rejection of conservative principles. Because to resign ourselves to externalizing the causes of our failure is to deny that policies have any effect on voters—it is to say they are incapable of reasoning their way to policies that advance their interests. Alexander Hamilton worried about this, writing in “Federalist No. 1,” “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

The fact is that young Americans are less interested in the traditional GOP pairing: a strong military and low taxes. This is not to argue for abandoning that pairing; we need to demonstrate interest and facility beyond them. Young people’s top concerns are climate change and health care. Only 8 percent of them think immigration is a problem. Even self-described and activist conservatives among young Americans are more socially liberal than their elders and favor diversity. This generation gap, incidentally, does not manifest itself among Democrats. We Republicans have a generational schism that Democrats do not have.

As Alex Muresianu has argued, we already have conservative policies that speak to young Americans’ worries, in particular the affordability of the middle-class lifestyle. Reducing regulation to bring down the cost of housing and health care, boosting competition to cut the cost of higher education, encouraging market-friendly solutions for climate change, rebalancing entitlement programs’ intergenerational transfers of wealth—these are all conservative means to deliver what young Americans want.

But those are not policies our Republican leaders in the executive branch and Congress are practicing. And that is the inescapable rub: We cannot win young Americans to conservative policies if we are not advocating conservative policies, and we cannot win young Americans to conservative principles if we are not advocating conservative principles. We have to win this argument among current Republicans before we can win over new Republicans.

How to do that is, of course, the political question of the moment. Elected Republicans will for the most part support the president’s decisions as long as they consider them, or him, to have electoral resonance—or at least as long as they believe they cannot succeed with Republican voters by opposing him or advocating different policies. And we cannot fault them for believing that getting elected is a precondition for the ability to enact policies. That is merely to say they are politicians.

By way of evidence, no Republican of note is willing to primary the president. Nor are our leading party politicians willing to break with the president on immigration, deficit spending, tariffs, or racially tinged travel restrictions. They have restricted the president’s ability to enact policies detrimental to our alliances in Europe and Asia and cuts to diplomacy. But for the most part, our party leaders are leaving to Democrats challenges to the president even where based on conservative principles.

This argument about the future of conservatism will be won or lost not in the halls of Congress, but in Rotary Clubs and parish houses, city councils, and school boards. There is simply no substitute for retail politics if we are to reclaim Republicanism for principled conservatism. And if we are to save conservatism as a political force in American life, we must all partake of it, finding ways to model the behavior and advocate the policies consistent with our conservatism.