Religion & Liberty Online

Young People Aren’t Becoming Conservatives. Here’s Why.

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America’s biggest voting block doesn’t think conservatives “care.” To win, we have to change that.

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Almost everyone has heard the cynical political adage, generally attributed to Winston Churchill, that “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains.” While the sentiment is lighthearted at its core, it nevertheless communicates a popular piece of political wisdom: as people get older and buy into the social outlets that promote faith and family, they tend to support more conservative policies, presumably to conserve the institutions they’re part of and the social capital they’ve accrued. It’s an attractive notion, and one that makes intuitive sense—obviously a single 21-year-old in an entry-level job is going to have different politics than a 40-year-old white collar worker with two kids. Moreover, American dynamism offers the kind of opportunity where you can be both in a lifetime.

Yet, is the conventional wisdom holding true for America’s youngest voters today? It’s no secret that both Millennials and Generation Z overwhelmingly vote Democratic—and it’s a real liability for Republicans, who are slowly waking up to the reality that America’s soon-to-be-largest voting block hates them. The old adage would indicate that there’s a generational shift coming, and conservatives would have you believe that the Millennial/Gen Z voting block can be flipped Republican (while their activist organizations insult Gen Z as a bunch of kids who want free stuff). Yet I’d posit that such optimism is, at best, only half-justified.

The growing social radicalism promoted by militant progressives and the shaky-at-best economic track record of the current administration are liabilities that may eventually turn off younger voters, particularly those of the working class. And if that’s not enough, don’t forget that 71% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, a trend that’s more or less mirrored in young voters. A shift is coming, and this is the half-justification I’m talking about: the Millennial/Gen Z voting block will likely turn away from the most extreme fringes of progressivism. This is a welcome change, and one that advocates of individual liberty and human flourishing should be pursuing and encouraging.

Here’s the hard part: it doesn’t mean they’re becoming conservative.

“Almost 7 in 10 Americans today say this country is not on the right track, we have to do something different,” then-AEI president and social scientist Arthur Brooks told audiences in 2014. “The problem is, they’re not all running to a new solution. Why? Because they don’t trust conservatives.” He gave that speech in 2014, and the numbers are exactly the same as they are now. Could it be, in an era when less than two-fifths of Americans believe that Republicans are honest and ethical, that the problem is the same as well?

America’s youngest voters are operating from a position of deep dissatisfaction with American politics—this we know. In the short term, it may serve to pull the Millennial/Gen Z voting block away from the fringes of social progressivism. But in the long term, that doesn’t mean they’re landing in the arms of conservatives. It’s not enough to convince Millennials and Gen Z that progressive answers won’t make them happier, healthier, or safer. We have to convince them that we actually have better answers that aren’t rooted in social regression or retribution. So how do we reach those young voters?

Be honest about the conservative stereotypes. Young people have learned a great deal of negative stereotypes about conservatives beyond the broad categories of unethical and dishonest: for example, we (speaking as a conservative myself) don’t care about gun deaths, we’re anti-immigrant, we want women to die in back alley abortions, etc. We cannot persuade generations that grew up being told about the evils of conservatism by simply ignoring those preconceptions. We have to do our homework and call out these ideas where they exist, because that’s what audience analysis is all about. We have to convince a generation that thinks we lack ethics and honesty that we care about these things. That means we have to actually care about them—and care about them enough to engage with the blind spots in their worldview.

Realize that we can’t insult our way to agreement. “Gen Z Is Gen FREE!” proclaims an advertisement from one of America’s most prominent conservative activist groups. The assumption is a tired and overplayed one—America’s youngest generations are lazy, entitled, and don’t want to work. I present to you the idea that perpetuating negative stereotypes is not a particularly effective method of persuading these young people to a cause. Furthermore, I invite you to think about this: What if conservatives who want to win the hearts and minds of voters under 30 spent as much energy talking about my generation’s drive for justice, ability to use social media to create change, and participation in morally charged activism as they did talking about our youth, inexperience, and entitlement? If we started seriously trying that, we might get something more than agreement—like enthusiasm or even passion. It’s hard even to imagine what a world like that would look like.

Go into the places we’re not expected and be conservative. GOP presidential candidate and senator Tim Scott recently made headlines by going on the notoriously left-wing talk show The View to lay out his views on race. “Progress in America is measured in generations. My grandfather [was] born in 1921 in Salley, South Carolina. When he was on a sidewalk, a white person was coming, he had to step off and not make eye contact,” explained Scott. “Yesterday’s exception [on racial equality] is today’s rule.” Scott pulled no punches as to his views on the progressive race narrative, lambasting comments previously made by View hosts as “dangerous, offensive, disgusting message[s].” This is where conservatives have to go—places where they do not typically appear but, for the sake of breaking through the echo chamber, absolutely have to be. And once they’re there, like Scott, they need to be unapologetically conservative in an expressive, personable, and unwavering fashion.

Young voters will not listen to conservatives unless they believe that they care. And they will not know that conservatives care unless they realize that we understand the negative perceptions that still cling to us. They will not believe that conservatives care if they get nothing but insults from us. And they will not hear caring messages from conservatives unless we go into the places where we’re ideologically outnumbered and outgunned and make the best case for our ideas that we can.

Sound hard? As a member of Gen Z myself, it’s going to be. But the alternative is that America’s largest voting block goes through life not merely distrusting us but living in a world of fundamental misperceptions about who we are and what we stand for. It’s a long game and a complex one. But it’s the game that’s before us—we walk away from the field at our peril.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.