This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
“The Millennial Socialists Are Coming” declared The New York Times’ Sunday Review. Just four days earlier, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old “democratic socialist,” had not only upset an entrenched incumbent in a New York congressional race, but cast herself as the face of a generation’s changing politics.
For years, pundits have forecast doom for conservatives standing in the way of the millennial generation’s relentless demographic march. Many on the Right have called for greeting youth with open arms, only to claim electoral victory in 2016 with a septuagenarian, whose effigy was burned on college campuses across the country. Here was the opportunity for progressives to claim their political spoils.
Or was it? Does the long arc of demographics bend toward liberalism? And, if so, how should conservatives respond?
As 2016 shows, nothing is inevitable in politics. Jettisoning beliefs unpopular among young voters simply to win them over would be to sell out the conservative soul. The Right should stick to its principles, for they speak to the longings for community and connection that young people crave in these disillusioned and disordered times.
The Generational Divide
This much is true: There is a dramatic political divide emerging in America between old and young, Right and Left. Millions of young people are coming into their own politically, and they are proving to be more liberal and diverse than the rest of the country. Just 15 percent of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) call themselves “conservative,” while more than half embrace the label “liberal.” The numbers are similar for the younger Gen Z.
Millennials and Gen Z are growing more liberal as they age, not less, which is a new feature of America’s political landscape. The generations that occupied Wall Street and birthed the Bernie Bro are now fueling the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America, with which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is affiliated. They tend to care about issues the Left says it cares about, such as climate change and social justice.
But the gender and ethnic divides may be even bigger than the value divide between generations. Millennials are the largest and most diverse generation in American history. The generation that follows them will be majority non-white by 2020. Since non-whites vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the party of the Left would seem to enjoy a large and growing electoral bloc. Demographics may not be destiny, but they do make a party.
Notwithstanding the Right’s poor showing with minority voters, the fact remains that young people of all stripes — particularly women — are leaving the Republican Party. They are not moving into the arms of Democrats exactly, even if they are voting that way. Rather, young people are becoming liberals without labels — political “nones” eschewing parties in favor of independence. The remaining young partisans are, as Kristen Soltis Anderson has said, “a more highly concentrated hard-line group,” which gives each side the impression that some sizable portion of young people are theirs to own.
America’s political divides reflect its growing tribal divides. We are undergoing a Great Sort — demographically, ideologically, and culturally — into different party bases. As Pew has found, one tribe skews old, conservative, white, rural, and religious, while the other leans young, liberal, nonwhite, urban, and secular. This new tribal politics finds young and old sorted into think-alike and look-alike communities. In the absence of communism or any other orienting enemy, our enemy has become the other tribe.
At best, our unity is found in our disillusionment. It sometimes seems as though we are in an “lol-nothing-matters” age where politics is has become entertainment to applaud, at least when we are not horrified. Technology necessarily shapes the ways each generation views the world and, if older voters were catechized by cable news, younger voter have been shaped by social media. Politics is their identity, and their identity politics is all-consuming.
These tribal identities are taking shape in a disorienting new era of hyper-individualism and radical diversity. To quote Ben Domenech, “People are atomized, power is centralized, data is aggregated, and culture is disaggregated.” Nowhere is this felt more than among the young, who report high rates of loneliness. Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, is the loneliest of the generations according to a recent survey by Cigna, even with their ever-present digital tethers.
These trends will play out as we pass the baton from one generation to the next, and young people’s political power will grow together with their influence. What, then, will become of conservatism in the age of millennials? The next conservative coalition must start upstream of politics.
Starting from Principles
Many point to the professed beliefs of Millennials and Gen Z and argue that we should jettison beliefs that do not fit with their preferences — that is, as long as it wouldn’t involve raising taxes. That would be a mistake. Conservatives should indeed craft 21st-century policies for 21st-century concerns. Yet, as a matter of strategy, that would involve trading a focus on principles for a focus on poll numbers. After what happened in 2016, we should know what it is like to be unmoored from what we once believed in a chase after popular whims.
Practically speaking, American politics remains as fluid as ever. People and circumstances change, and today’s young will not be young forever (I speak from experience). In a postmodern age, beliefs are fluid things, and already there are signs that the generation following millennials are not neatly lining up behind their older peers in, say, supporting gun control, environmental regulations, or nationalized health care.
Conservatives who call for giving up traditional beliefs for the sake of millennials are redolent of those Christians who, roughly a generation ago, believed the church was disregarding young people at its peril. Faced with an Oprahfication of moral sentiments among the youth, the so-called Emerging Church and the Mainline Church deconstructed faith along postmodern lines. But these churches too often became a confused mess of watered-down liberalism and the moralistic, therapeutic deism that was already on offer. At that point SoulCycle sounded better. No wonder there are more young people in bike seats than in pews on Sunday morning.
The right answer for the church was more gospel, not less. Similarly, in today’s politics the right answer is more principle, not less. Disenchanting beliefs for a disenchanted generation will not transcend the dullness of “lol nothing matters.” A flourishing and faithfully present community is as much a mark of the City of God as it is a longing in the City of Man.
Older conservatives would be wise to consider the very real possibility that a significant portion of America’s younger generations is lost to their side forever. It is not simply that young people do not know any better and will “vote right” when they “grow up.” Older and younger voters are settling into their respective tribes, with the older generations seeking a restoration of a world they remember and the younger ones seeking a transformation of a world they long to forget.
The appropriate response for conservatives is neither to chase after a train that for many young people is already on its way out of the station, or to shout “good riddance!” as the youth go their own way. The Right has already compromised itself in the chase after older and whiter voters. Its supporters have been all too eager to throw aside the encumbrances of conservative policy and principle in order to woo the “coalition of restoration,” as Ronald Brownstein has termed these older and more rural voters.
A conservatism for America’s young people must start from principles, not politics. And these principles need to be woven into a story of the American Idea that all people are invited into.
These principles must contain, as Yuval Levin has argued, “Some vision of the good of the whole — some idea of how our society ought to approach its common life and why.” What exactly is that vision? As Levin explains, it is one both young and old must be reminded of today and every day:
The conservative vision of society — informed both by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals alone to address social problems and by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals — seeks social arrangements that encourage individual moral progress while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society — families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more — that stand between the individual and the state.
We the people share a common enterprise, fulfilling obligations to ourselves and to one another in a way that defines us and gives us purpose, and we pass down our shared order to the next generation. These are the principles with which conservatives can persuade and unite the next generation. We can’t assume these principles are obvious nor even embedded in our politics.
Conservatism is not about “owning the libs” or slaking our thirst for victory with the tears of elites. That is not conservatism, but a reactionary tribalism birthed in a populist politics of resentment. As we the people come apart, young people acutely experience the isolation of individualism. Both Right and Left now seek to address our growing disconnection from each other with an identity politics that promises to unite through division. This project can only disappoint.
Conservatism rightly understood seeks to weave us into our social fabric. It strengthens our bonds as Americans in the context of our communities. We are neither unum nor pluribus, but e pluribus unum — a diverse people held in tension by a common creed. And what is that creed? It is a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being enshrined in principles of freedom, equality, and justice.
If this seems trite, it is only because these eternal truths have devolved into punchlines. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Right may be that it has lacked a compelling story of American history embodied by the American creed. The thousands of young people flocking to see “Hamilton” on stage are, in part, desiring a story of America’s Founding that is not blinded to its sins but redeems them in a way that gives fresh purpose to the American project. Our Founding is, just like us, imperfect and flawed but a precious miracle, too.
The story of America is not ours to own, but ours to retell. And the importance of retelling that story should not be underestimated. As Patrick Deneen suggests, whether the public square “can be filled again with newly rendered stories of old telling us of a common origin and destination, or whether it must simply be dominated by whoever proves the strongest, is the test of our age.”
For the campaign operatives still reading this, remember: Your words and actions matter for embracing the next generations. Performative politics, blind patriotism, defenses of poor character, and trolling stabs at institutions may be great for ratings, but at some point this reality show grows old for everyone. Young people experience enough of this shallow entertainment on social media as it is. Do not be afraid to speak in moral and even religious terms. Couch these words in a story of the American idea. Act in policy and practice with authentic commitment. This not about attracting young people with better marketing and messaging. It is about articulating a vision that can serve as a call to action.
In an era of increasing autonomy, we need a politics we can wrap our arms around. In gathering young people together in pursuit of political ends, the gathering itself — which is to say, community — is more important than the ends. Simply put, conservatives should be a lot more involved at the state and local level. We should seek to build communities that are easier to participate in and where that participation can’t be outsourced. Congress should also work to regain the power it has ceded over the years to the executive branch, reforming itself even as it devolves more authority to America’s states and localities. All candidates for office will necessarily tailor their politics to their constituency, and this will offer conservatives a chance to address the diversity of viewpoints found in millennials and Gen Z without sacrificing their orienting principles.
Less than a year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was tending bar in New York City. She may soon become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. “I’m twenty-eight years old, and I was elected on this super-idealistic platform,” she said. “Folks may want to take that away from me, but I won.”
Millennials and the younger generations to come will continue to win. That is the nature of politics. They will surprise us and upset the status quo. Many of these young people will be liberal or progressive and see conservative ideas as beyond the pale. But what conservatives can offer young people in search of community are beliefs that connect us to our past, our future, and to one another. A conservatism for the next generation, or any generation, is a “conservatism of connection” — “an invitation to a great tradition” in which politics is a byproduct of principle.
Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.