It’s no secret that conservatives have had difficulty winning over Millennials. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 41% of Millennials identify as mostly or consistently liberal, while only 15% identify as mostly or consistently conservative – a 26% difference. Considering the same survey saw more Baby Boomers identify as conservative and only a 9% liberal advantage for Generation Xers, this separation poses a huge challenge for conservative leaders. President Barack Obama won 66% of the youth vote in 2008 and 60% in 2012. Conservatives have a (yet another) demographic problem.
Conservatives must work now to convert Millennials and the rising Generation Z to our basic tenets of limited government and individual freedoms. So far, current conservative leaders – in politics, media, and otherwise – have failed to properly engage young people. They have used the wrong strategies to fight the wrong battles and have simply not made enough of an effort to win young people to our cause.
The problem centers on many conservatives’ unwillingness to keep social issues out of the political debate and refusing to recognize the interests and priorities of young voters. Furthermore, conservatives are not adequately engaging young people on issues that should matter to them because they will be left with the consequences (for instance: debt, war, powers of government). In effect, conservatives are trying to drive a square pole into a round hole.
So what do conservatives need to do?
First, remember the role of a conservative in the political system. As I wrote in my last column, conservatives commit to limited government, not a nanny state. Just as liberals should not be dictating the food we eat, the guns we shoot, or the business we start, we conservatives should refrain from imposing a government moral order. Feel free to engage with social commentary, but issues such as gay marriage and use of birth control should not be issues – let people do as they choose when it does not harm you. Too many conservatives have become enamored with using government to create a strong moral state, an idea that reeks of statism. Young people, who are generally socially liberal 0r libertarian, are turned off by conservative politics concentrated on social issues that expand the size of government. Conservatives ought to be about maximizing citizens’ freedoms, not minimizing.
Next, conservatives need to win the limited government debate. Conservatives have to acknowledge that young people have very different social beliefs and conceptions than Boomers or Xers, and that’s okay. Volunteerism, diversity, and social media are just small examples of the gulf separating generations. But conservatives need to emphasize that government does not need to solve every problem, private institutions and individuals can too. Conservatives should be emphasizing – and exercising – responsible government spending and explaining to younger voters how such spending will affect them. Conservatives should continue to be active in finding solutions for the large welfare programs, because these issues impact younger voters.
With the limited government debate comes the individual responsibility debate. This is the conservative bread-and-butter, and conservatives have to be creative in spreading its message. Individual responsibility and freedom are non-negotiable tenets, so conservatives must demonstrate why these values are vital to the very foundation of society. Here is where conservatives must continue to adapt to new media and methods of political persuasion to effectively reach young voters.
Finally, conservatives have to act on matters of generational importance and engage younger voters while doing so. Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, among others, have already tried to engage young minority communities about their needs. But much more needs to be done. While the economy is the top issue across generations, government policing and surveillance, the environment, and the education system are all important issues to young people. The conservative responses have been entirely reflexive and disjointed. Conservatives should work together to create responses to these concerns with public or private plans and reasoning behind them.
If conservatives want to stay competitive in the next few decades, they need to win young voters. John McCain and Mitt Romney were blown out in younger demographics by President Obama. Young voters have not quite registered en masse with Democrats, but they sure aren’t voting for conservatives. Conservatives need to engage young people on issues that matter to them and they need to remember what they should be standing for politically. Winning the youngest generation is essential to conservatives’ future political success.