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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.
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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.