WHISNANT: Millennials and the GOP don’t mix

Millennials are not disenchanted with the GOP solely because of its social stances

This past Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz paid a visit to Politics professor Larry Sabato’s Introduction to American Politics class. Through his speech and brief question and answer session, Cruz pitched a far-ranging agenda under the umbrella of what he called “opportunity conservatism.” The mix of policies he put forth should surprise few observers of the Tea Party movement: a low minimum wage, unrestricted campaign spending and the repeal of Obamacare, among other right-wing perennials. While students were enthusiastic to listen to such a prominent politician, the chilly manner in which Cruz’s proposals were received emphasized just how out of step GOP standard-bearers are with the priorities of the millennial generation.

It’s conventional wisdom among pundits like Sabato that since Republicans have a “steep hill to climb with young people because of social issues,” Republicans like Cruz can moderate on gay marriage and abortion and then quickly reclaim the hearts and minds of millennial voters. That diagnosis misses the reasons why millennials are so disenchanted with the Republican Party and what it will to take to bring them into the GOP camp.

The greatest misconception about young voters is that they are “socially liberal fiscal conservatives.” On March 7, the Pew Research Center issued a nearly 70-page report on the politics, values and opinions of people between the ages of 18 and 33. While it’s true that millennials are markedly more in favor of gay marriage (68 percent of millennials compared to 48 percent of baby boomers) and marijuana legalization (69 percent of millennials compared to 52 percent of boomers) than the general electorate, on other social issues the picture isn’t as clearly liberal. Millennials are slightly less in favor of abortion rights than Generation X, and only 49 percent believe that gun control should be a priority over protecting gun ownership. The Republican Party might do well to moderate its stance on marijuana legalization and gay marriage, but voters under 33 are just as divided as the older electorate on the abortion and gun issues the GOP has successfully flogged for decades to boost turnout.

On economic issues, the survey found that New Deal-style economic liberalism is significantly more attractive to young voters than to the populace as a whole. Fifty-three percent of millennials prefer a “bigger government providing more services” compared to only 32 percent of baby boomers. The poll also found fairly robust support for the idea of universal health care, at 54 percent (compared with 46 percent of Generation X and 42 percent of Baby Boomers). For Cruz and others who believe that the GOP can maintain its low tax, low spending orthodoxy as long as the Tea Party advocates for “states rights” on marijuana and gay marriage, there remains a stubborn electoral reality that these social adjustments will not solve.

These millennial policy preferences also deal to dispel the narrative that politicians like Rand Paul and Gary Johnson can tap into a youthful “libertarian” generation that will eventually carry them to electoral victory. Conservative writer Kevin Williamson points out that many social liberals identify themselves as “libertarians” in their personal lives but are otherwise conventionally progressive in their politics. Young voters may believe government should get out of people’s bedrooms, but a full 61 percent balk at the government getting out of providing full Social Security benefits.

This is not to say that Democrats can expect young voters to flock to them with open arms. Only 31 percent of millennials in the study — compared to 43 percent of the entire population — see “a great deal” of differences between the parties, perhaps contributing to their cynicism and the relatively low turnout rates that accompany it. This problem will only be exacerbated if the Democratic Party gets behind a Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 that disturbingly echoes the neoconservative foreign policy of the Bush administration and returns to the failed neoliberal economics of the Clinton years that helped bring about the financial crisis. In order to consolidate youth support, Democrats must promote an agenda of full employment and economic security at home and peace and humility abroad.

Having access to hearing important figures like Cruz speak is one of the greatest privileges of being a student at the University. With that access should also come quintessentially Jeffersonian skepticism of what those speakers are selling.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

Published April 9, 2014 in Opinion

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