On Creating Young Conservatives
by Dr. John Mark Reynolds
Losing an aging Arlen Specter will do little harm to a movement long term. Losing the youth vote year after year is a sign of approaching party senility.
Obama won the youth vote overwhelmingly. Some conservatives believe that he won because of his acknowledged personal qualities and awesome campaign skills. A recent Rasmussen Report analysis of polling data suggests that while being a super hero campaigner never hurts, Obama won because of his ideas. He won the youth vote, because young voters are more liberal than previous generations.
That has to change for the good of the nation. Sadly for the good of the nation, Obama will fail as president, but the nation may not perceive this failure. He will fail, because the actions he has already taken will limit our liberty. Our liberty may be impaired, but people may become accustomed to it.
The good news for conservatives is there is no reason to split our economic and social conservative base. The bad news is that this is because Obama’s young voters reject both wings of the party. They are not social conservatives and they are not economic libertarians.
Not all youthful voters can be reached. Many have decided on their political philosophy and will not change their minds. We cannot persuade them if they will not listen and many have closed their minds to conservatives.
Partly this is a natural reaction of youth to their parents who are one of the most conservative generations in US history. Patient citizens will see the Obama generation raise a conservative cohort in thirty years, but sadly too much damage can be done to the Republic in the meantime to wait.
My experience shows a sizeable minority of Obama voters can be reached by good conservative arguments. Conservatives need only persuade a portion of Obama’s voters to change their minds, but not by alienating that third of the young who already vote for conservative candidates.[# More #]
The Long Road Back Begins with Education
You cannot win by subtracting and conservatives need not immediately win the youth vote, just reduce the size of the defeat. This should begin with groups that are less conservative than one would anticipate. The core youth vote for conservatives is traditionally Christian and there is room for growth. Conservatives are underachieving in what should be their core constituency.
Partly this is because too many conservative educational institutions are either too sectarian or mostly secular. Those that claim to be broad based often ignore important classes of potential conservative voters.
There are major conservative organizations having few if any young Evangelical Christian voices. This is embarrassing given the clout such voters have in the conservative movement. Conservatives who are Evangelical often end up in their own organizations and seemingly “appear” every few years in primaries like Iowa. Conservatives don’t talk to each other enough.
Evangelicals should learn to listen to atheists, but atheist conservatives should listen to young, bright Evangelicals who disagree with some of their views. This should happen in one place where possible!
Winning voters who think they disagree with conservatism need not begin by becoming less conservative. What would be the point of this? If after close examination of our own views, we still think the conservative philosophy correct, we need to begin the long slow process of educating persuadable voters.
This begins by listening and not attacking. Rousing the base has its place, but when one is in the minority it is of limited use. Humility, time, and discussion are the best approaches to those who disagree with us, but could be persuaded.
It is hard for me to name institutions that are set up to persuade those on the left. Such institutions may not excite the base, but they will expand it. Conservatism needs media (old and new) that does not require total “buy in.” Gradual exposure to conservative positions will slowly move the thoughtful voter toward mainline conservative media.
In a different generation voices like Paul Harvey served as a “first-contact” for many Americans to the conservative mainstream. They were media figures first in the public mind, conservatives second. Paul Harvey made minds receptive to conservative ideas. Such people and institutions should be conservative without announcing it at every turn. A young-sort-of-liberal vegan would find a Hannity too much red meat and needs a gentler diet first!
It is sad that young voters have the views they have. There are probably social institutions such as the major media and schools that share some of the blame for this situation, but conservative whining should end. Major change is not coming soon and so we need to embrace our role of underdogs and begin to infiltrate liberal institutions while strengthening those that are still conservative.
Most youth voters I meet, even from conservative families, have never heard an intellectual case for conservative economics or social policy that is also sensitive to the poor and to the environment. This does not require so much a new conservatism as new educational approach. The initial success of Mike Huckabee shows that young voters, and he did very well with Republican young voters, are waiting for someone who can explain our views.
Too often conservatives have looked for quick fix solutions that ignore the years of educational effort that will be required to solve this problem. This will begin by strengthening conservative schools and media institutions we already have. Why don’t conservative donors endow chairs in conservatism at more schools? Many middle-sized Christian colleges and universities, while non-partisan, are sensitive enough to their overwhelmingly conservative constituencies to accept such gifts.
Imagine scores of conservative scholars freed to educate and mentor the next generation of conservative leaders. One student once said to me, “I wish conservative leaders did not keep embarrassing me.” The student was no coward, but leaders, particularly on the religious right, were not helping but harming him.
Don’t Embarrass Me: Creating a Middlebrow Conservatism
I believe there are many young conservative voters, often religious, looking for a party that will not embarrass them. It is already hard when you are young to stand against the majority and conservatives should want to make it easier, not harder. We cannot win the youth vote with candidates who make conservatives hold their breath in debates lest they say something stupid.
We need candidates who can explain our pro-life views by making arguments, not just repeating talking points. This is one of the strengths of the left and of Obama. The entire left does not take a high tone. There is a left-wing noise machine-and such populist style will always exist in a republic. Conservatives can generally match the left at this level of discourse, but control of schools, “middle-brow” cultural institutions, and media have given the left an overwhelming advantage at “middle-brow” discussions.
It is not conservatism when big business and big government corrupt each other. We don’t need a new conservatism to say this, I have never met a serious conservative who favors graft or lets Wall Street plutocrats off the hook for their part in the corruption of our national affairs, but we do need to say it more loudly. Most of my students, the majority from households that consume huge amounts of conservative media, have never heard it.
Conservatives need strong apologetics, a defense of their point of view. Strong defense requires a charitable understanding of the other side. Nobody will be persuaded if the liberalism being attacked bears no resemblance to the liberalism they have (weakly!) embraced.
Our approach must be dialectic, centered in listening and discussion, rather than preaching. Persuadable Obama voters have rejected what they believe is conservatism and one thing they think they know about conservatism is that it is narrow minded and intolerant. Discussion with thinkers on both sides of the aisle is the key to ending this perception. Some communicators like Hewitt and Medved do this, but
many do not.
Conservatives have thinkers, living and historic. Conservatism has good populist roots in the United States. Yet these days conservatives lack a way of appealing to the influential intellectual middle. National Review is a good start, but is not enough.
We either need to be part of or fund the equivalent of middlebrow institutions such NPR and public television to discuss the entire culture from a conservative point of view. A political movement in a republic cannot be healthy if it loses the class of people who are not professional intellectuals, but who care deeply about the life of the mind. Such folk will produce much of the popular entertainments consumed by the rest of us.
At present, middlebrow media is overwhelmingly leftist.
My personal experience suggests that young voters can be persuaded to consider conservative ideas and solutions. The total dominance in Washington of liberalism gives us prized “outsider status.” This is a good moment to begin the long process of educating the next generation of voters so that generation Obama gives way to generation Conservative.