The Right's Lost Generation
Fewer Americans are growing more conservative with age.
Back in 2009 (or maybe early 2010), I decided it was time for me to leave the political bleachers and join the game. I’d been engaged in politics since the 9/11 attacks, but mostly as a spectator. I read and listened to a lot of political news and commentary, became more acquainted with the U.S. Constitution and other important documents and moments in American history, and formed and sharpened various political views.
But after the election of Barack Obama, I felt I needed to contribute more than just my vote every two years. Obama’s fiscal, economic, and foreign-policy ideas (some of which he was successfully implementing) were, in my view, terrible for the country and beyond. So was the president’s inclination to blame his predecessor and American power for many of the world’s woes (while he routinely straw-manned and morally-belittled his political opposition).
A good start, as I saw it, was to help take away some of the power Obama and his party (who held majorities in the House and Senate) had in Washington. So, I got in contact with the local branch of the Republican Party. I offered my services as a volunteer, and I was invited to their upcoming district meeting.
I wasn’t sure what all I was in store for when I arrived at the venue hall that night, but I did count on the experience being fairly awkward. After all, I knew no one else involved with the Weld GOP of Colorado, and half-expected some of those attending to show up in colonial garb, since the Tea Party was building some good momentum during that time.
But that wasn’t the case, and what surprised me the most was the hero’s welcome I received upon entering the room. I’m not joking. Everyone there seemed genuinely excited to see me. Heads turned, whispers were exchanged, and one person after another walked up to enthusiastically introduce themself. This included the party chair and other higher-ups.
It wasn’t because they knew who I was. They didn’t. I have some local notoriety these days, because of my books, but this was a few years before my first novel came out. Part of the explanation was that I was a new face, but that wasn’t the key factor; other new volunteers that night didn’t create nearly the buzz.
It was because I was young. Well, relatively speaking anyway.
I was in my mid-30s, but was comparatively a child when it came to the mean age of the rest of the room. I was an instant rock-star, an important member of the group — the kind of individual they desperately wanted among their ranks to show that their party and platform, which has traditionally appealed to an older demographic, had a future.
As time went on, and I got more involved with the party (doing grassroots precinct work and even throwing a fundraiser), I discovered that I wasn’t the only youngster. There was a handful of others in their 20s and 30s, but I say that somewhat literally in that you could count them on one hand. Things were more proportional at the state level (I served as a delegate at two state-assemblies), but not by much.
Did it bother me? No, not really. In fact, it made sense. People traditionally grow more conservative with age.
As the old saying (falsely attributed to Winston Churchill) goes, “If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain.”
I’m now 50, and though I left the party a few years back, I’m guessing my age-demographic has at least decent representation within today’s GOP. The replenishment of that demographic may be another story.
In the past, this coming-of-age political progression was backed up by data. But as commentator Andrew Sullivan recently described, this once reliable evolution has suffered a significant setback. Citing numbers showing that 35 year-olds in America today are the least conservative in recorded history, it seems that our young people are maintaining their liberalism.
“Zoomers and Millennials are further to the left to begin with,” notes Sullivan, “and, more critically, don’t seem to be moving rightward as they age.”
Sullivan thinks a number of factors account for this, including younger Americans entering the job market in the wake of a financial crisis — an environment that stokes distrust in free-market capitalism, and a deeper reliance on government. Sullivan also attributes the left’s victories on social-issues like multiculturalism and gay rights, and their wide acceptance among younger people, along with the “psychological and cultural impact of Trump,” who young voters overwhelmingly rejected in the last presidential election.
That last point may be more significant than a lot of people realize.
I had the benefit of growing up during the Reagan era. Though I was a little young at the time to be interested in politics and form a coherent political ideology, I took genuine pride in the president and his office. I viewed Reagan as a very decent individual — a man of integrity and kindness, whose deep love for our country was on full display in every persuasive, patriotic speech and infectious smile. I felt similarly about George H.W. Bush.
In 2000, when I finally got around to registering to vote (after blowing off the first two presidential elections I was age-eligible to vote in), I affiliated myself with the Republican party. It wasn’t just (or even mostly) because I preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore. It was primarily due to the stark contrast I saw between the Republican presidencies I grew up under, and that of the morally depraved Bill Clinton, who had recently been impeached for lying under oath about an affair he’d had with a White House intern.
I still wasn’t a self-recognized conservative by then (though my friends claim they saw it in me long before that), but I did recognize and value character. To me, it was a baseline factor, and in my view, the Republican party had notably more character and decency than the Democratic party.
It’s harder to say that today.
Conservative commentator David French brought up the point earlier this week that many young Americans have no memory of a pre-2015 Republican party or conservative movement. All they know of it is what they see now: for the most part, a media-driven collection of angry, conspiracy-fueled, own-the-libs culture warriors who know how to excite (and fund-raise off) an existing base, but offer no serious reason for why younger voters should support them (even if those voters have little regard for the Democratic party).
Character and decency, which (contrary to popular belief) a lot of younger people still value, just aren’t easily identifiable in the modern GOP. Heck, such deficiencies are almost worn as a badge of honor by some of the party’s top stars who present themselves as fighters. They equate such previously admired traits with weakness and squishiness — liabilities America simply can’t afford when we’re “at war” with the other side.
What is easily identifiable in today’s GOP is grievance and combativeness over fading traditions, and that just isn’t all that appealing to young voters. Few in the party are trying to persuade younger Americans on any kind of vision, or even policies that seem applicable to them.
As an unapologetic conservative and father of teenagers, it’s been hard enough for me to explain to my kids, over the last few years, that the crazy stuff they see on the internet, coming from Republican firebrands who self-describe as “conservative”, isn’t representative of conservatism. It takes some effort to promote the wisdom of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and individual freedom to young minds. And sadly, the closest the GOP has come to doing it over the last seven years has been their recently revamped initiative to treat voters like they were born yesterday.
After helping President Trump add $7.8 trillion to that national debt, which began with a historic spending spree during his first two years in office (when the GOP controlled both branches of Congress), they’ve returned to preaching — rather sanctimoniously — about fiscal conservatism.
They’re portraying themselves as defenders of free speech and free markets, while threatening to call CEOs before Congress for saying “woke” stuff.
They’re claiming to have reduced the size of government with the passage of bills that will, in fact, never become law.
They’re touting their commitment to national security while putting a 9/11-truther on the House Homeland Security committee (which exists because of 9/11). They’ve even given George Santos committee assignments.
And in all likelihood, they’ll renominate a guy for president who tried to overturn U.S. democracy.
Such unseriousness does not inspire new support from anyone, let alone younger voters. If the 2009-2010 GOP were this clownish (and they did have some clowns back then), I can’t imagine I would have ever gotten involved with the party’s grassroots efforts. I can’t imagine why young people would now.
“I don’t believe that the young are inherently as left as they currently are,” says Sullivan. “It’s just that the right hasn’t offered them an appealing enough alternative that is actually relevant to them.”
I agree, but beyond relevance — again — is the credibility factor. Today’s GOP simply isn’t credible. And until the party demonstrates some credibility, youthful liberal instincts will carry over into middle-age and beyond.