The Republican Party is in trouble.
Going into 2009, they find themselves in an electoral purgatory they won’t leave anytime soon. As AEI’s David Frum says,
College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats–but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.
So the question for the GOP is: will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will potentially involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That is a future that leaves little room for Palin–but it is the only hope for a Republican recovery.
Frum strikes at the heart of the GOP’s problem–they perform terribly among younger voters who, as time goes on, will start to make up more and more of the electorate.
The Generation Gap
In fact, if you look at where Americans stand on the issues, you find that there is a significant generation gap between younger voters and older voters.
Take, for instance, the environment:
Most young Americans age 13 to 24 are at least somewhat concerned about global warming – and the more they know about it, the more concerned about it they are.
Large majorities say the time to do something about global warming is right NOW. And many pick the environment as the biggest problem that their generation will need to solve.
And look at gay marriage: in May, 2008, Pew Research found that 52% of 18-29 year olds support gay marriage. Compare that to just 40% of 30-49 year-olds, 34% of 50-64 year-olds and 24% of voters 65 and older who support it.
And it’s not just the parties’ stances on the issues; part of the problem is recent history.
Most of my generation only remembers two Presidents: Bill Clinton, successful but personally flawed, and George W. Bush, a failure.
We only know the political parties as they exist now, not as they once existed; from our limited perspective, Democrats are better governors than Republicans. We lack the perspective that older Americans have, where they can look back towards Reagan or Carter or Kennedy or Eisenhower.
That isn’t to say young voters are stupid or short-sighted, but different generations have different experiences–you couldn’t blame young people for not remembering Reagan any more than you could blame a 50 year old is for remembering the great depression. But that doesn’t change the fact that the GOP’s modern history has been spotty; they haven’t given my generation any reason to believe in them.
To look at 2008, Barack Obama ran a great campaign and John McCain ran a poor campaign. 2008 was, essentially, a microcosm of where the two political parties stand–one is innovative and effective and the other is incompetent and out-of-touch.
Obama’s ideas were new—how many presidential candidates have run unabashedly on alternative energy and universal health care? Not only were those policies new, but that were relevant solutions to the issues our country faces.
McCain, on the other hand, ran a backwards-looking campaign. How much of his campaign was based on what he did in Vietnam? And how many of his policies were based on the same Reaganite/Gingrichean ideas we’ve heard a thousand times before?
There used to be an old canard that the GOP was the party of ideas. Well, in short time the Democrats have turned that around and emerged as the party of idea, leaving the GOP in the dust.
Aiding And Abetting The Enemy
So, what advice do I have for the GOP to win over young voters again?
First, it’s about competence. Young people only know the GOP as the incompetent Bushean party that can’t be trusted with power; proving to us that Republicans can do a good job when trusted with power will go a long way.
To do that, it’s time to abandon the Reaganite idea that government is always bad. That’s a nearly 30-year-old talking point that came about when our country was in a very different place. The truth is, the government can do a lot of good for people and, in some respects–such as disaster relief–we need a strong, well-funded and well-prepared government. If the GOP is bent on indiscriminately dismantling government at every opportunity then we have no reason to trust them with it.
Second, I agree with Frum–the GOP has to start rethinking it’s positions on a lot of the issues, particularly the highly-divisive social issues.
There was a time when the GOP was very skilled at winning support by using divisive wedge issues. But now a massive backlash has developed–people are tired of being divided and fighting the same battles year after year. That dissatisfaction was an intrinsic part of Obama’s victory.
When it comes to the social issues Republicans used to win votes, young voters just aren’t interested; my generation is more open-minded and tolerant than any ever before it, even among young conservatives. By pursuing rigid conservative ideological purity, the GOP may end up losing an entire generation of voters forever.