The Republican Party’s Lost Generation
This summer, I taught an introductory political psychology class at The Washington Center. Thirteen Millennial-aged college students from around the country, mostly rising juniors and seniors, braved DC’s sweltering heat to learn the basics of the dual-process model of ideology, generational theory, political messaging and a number of other related topics with clear strategic implications.
While I hope they learned a great deal from me, I can confidently say that I learned a few things about Millennials from my time with them.
One should always be careful about generalizing from a small and inherently biased selection to a wider population. But I’ve studied the Millennial Generation enough to know when I’m looking a representative sample, however imperfect. I believe my students were exactly the sorts of young voters that campaigns on both sides of the aisle – and public affairs groups across the ideological spectrum – would like to reach and better understand.
Most of my students had a decent familiarity with current events – particularly news related to the 2016 presidential campaign – but very few of them had strong partisan leanings. Although there were a few libertarians in the mix – even one or two who might have thought of themselves as conservatives 30 or 40 years ago – most of the students self-identified as liberal, where, to them, liberal meant something along the lines of “socially inclusive do-good-er.”
These second-wave Millennials born in the 1990s were nearly identical in most ways to their slightly older peers born in the 1980s, but with one big difference: their formative political experiences.
It quickly became clear that, for these students, the seminal political events of their adolescence weren’t the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or even Hurricane Katrina – as with many of their older peers. Rather, their political awakenings coincided with the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and the election of the nation’s first black president.
Classical generational theory posits that cohorts with such different coming of age experiences should adopt dramatically different political values. But that evidently isn’t what happened. My students, in the aggregate, looked a lot like their slightly older peers — at least in terms of their values and beliefs.
While studies have found a handful of demographic and behavioral differences between the two cohorts of Millennials, politically they’re very similar. Almost all of the political variance between the older and younger cohorts is explained by younger white Millennials, who are less monolithically Democratic and liberal than their older peers. To be clear, this is a difference in degree, not in kind. It pales in comparison to the differences between Millennials and Gen Xers, Baby Boomers or Silents, which are far more pronounced.
The relative similarity of the older and younger cohorts of Millennials, however, is expected by modern generational theory. The architects of that theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe, argued that a generation’s experiences in childhood do more to shape its eventual political and ideological leanings than its coming of age experiences.
Childhood socialization, not adolescence, is what sets the template for each generation’s character. Cohorts that faced relatively similar childhood demands and expectations from their parents, teachers and caregivers should turn out a lot a like, according to this theory.
So even though older and younger Millennials may have had very different political formative experiences – the Bush years for the older cohort and the Obama years for the younger one – their politics differ only at the margins because they had such similar childhoods.
Even though these more recent coming of age memories may have had little impact on my students’ political views, they nonetheless had a major impact on the learning experience inside my classroom.
Very often, key concepts in political psychology had to be illustrated with short history lessons on recent American politics. When giving examples, it wasn’t enough to make a passing reference to swift boating, Ralph Nader or the Contract with America – landmarks of my own formative years in politics. My students may have been reasonably bright and well educated, but they had no clue what these things were.
Indeed, my students had no memory of a time when Washington worked or when the American economy prospered for all. They were stunned to learn that the Republican Party wasn’t always the bastion of right wing radicalism that it is today. To them, the term “liberal Republican” was an oxymoron – such an obvious and self-evident contradiction of terms that it very nearly defied comprehension.
For this younger cohort of Millennials, the Republican Party is constitutionally incapable of governing responsibly. In their lived experience, the GOP has always been a dysfunction band of belligerent oligarchs, corrupt charlatans and bigoted know-nothings. Donald Trump isn’t damaging to the Republican brand: he IS the brand, and that brand is beyond toxic.
Many on the right still think of the GOP as the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan. But there’s a rising generational cohort that has no memory of anything besides the party of Palin, Cruz and Trump.
If there’s a silver lining for Republicans in this darkest of clouds, it’s that Democrats still have work to do to convert both cohorts of Millennials into long-term, loyal partisans. But the Democrats’ task looks easy compared to the wholesale ideological makeover and personality transplant that would be required of Republicans to even begin a conversation that most Millennials would want to join.
People often ask me how Republicans can appeal to Millennials. I’m increasingly convinced the answer is “by becoming liberal Democrats.” Obviously, that’s not an answer that satisfies Republicans or offers any constructive solutions to the dwindling number of genuinely principled conservatives, but I’m increasingly persuaded that it’s the truth.
In a generation where socialism sometimes out-polls capitalism, where fighting against climate change and in favor of full LGBT equality are prerequisites for being taken seriously, and where most right wing politicians disgust even the young conservatives, we’re kidding ourselves by pretending that today’s Republicans can realistically compete for the Millennial vote.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s some magic formula that can reconcile the agenda of movement conservatism, such as it is, with the values and priorities of the Millennial Generation writ large. But at a time when conservatives are barely able to hold together their own coalition, it’s hard to imagine them finding common ground with new and increasingly hostile constituencies.
A house divided against itself cannot stand, much less expand.
Since before the term “Millennial” entered the popular lexicon, I’ve long believed that Republicans were at serious risk of losing this generation — and that Democrats had an extraordinary opportunity build a long-term governing majority by harnessing the Millennial Generation’s civic energy. Democrats have yet to tap into the Millennials’ full potential, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republican Party never will. The best Republicans can hope for is to cut their losses.
What my students taught me this summer is that the Republican Party isn’t merely at risk of losing the Millennial Generation. They’ve already lost it, and very likely for good.