Politics & Policy

Will Conservatives Court Millennials?

Sanders supporters at a rally in Vista, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
If Republicans don’t appeal to America’s disaffected youth, we will lose our future.

The Sanders campaign is ending with a whimper. As the dust settles on the Democratic primaries, the Vermont senator is meeting with Hillary Clinton and talking up the importance of local politics. The defiance is mostly gone now. He’s putting a bow on an extraordinary campaign that will end, as expected, with the coronation of Hillary Clinton.

It was hard to see things ending any other way. But you have to feel for his millions of young supporters, who really liked Bernie. Among the under-30 crowd, Sanders voters have outnumbered Clinton and Trump supporters combined by a considerable margin. In the 74-year-old Sanders, young voters found a ray of hope.

Now they are left with choices they loathe even more than the rest of us do. Fully three-quarters of voters under 40 have unfavorable views of Donald Trump. Even Trump, though, attracted more fresh-faced primary voters than Hillary Clinton. With Sanders out of the picture, that will presumably change, but the fact remains that the Republican and Democratic nominees are deeply disliked. America’s major political parties have just slammed the door on their young.

What say you, conservatives? Is there any way for us to open a window?

The challenges of chasing younger voters are admittedly formidable. Let’s start with the obvious: They’re socialists and libertines. Politically speaking, the only cause that has really excited them was the LGBT-rights movement, which is an absolute non-starter with religious traditionalists. (No, don’t even think about sacrificing the religious conservatives. They’re the only non-progressive sub-culture in America that is sizable, vibrant, and fecund. We need them, too.)

RELATED: Fellow Millennials: Don’t Be Deceived by Democratic Socialism

Setting aside those (admittedly large) stumbling blocks, we can find some non-trivial reasons for youthful voters and principled conservatives to make common cause. Both groups feel disenfranchised at present. After laboring mightily to stop their respective parties from nominating a corrupt and polarizing figure, they both came up short. Expedience can at times be a powerful motivator for political cooperation. No one wants to be left entirely without a political outlet.

Expedience can at times be a powerful motivator for political cooperation.

More substantively, there is this: Young voters seem reluctant to dash into the tribal conflicts that increasingly consume their elders. Of course, this is not universally true. Too many have been drawn into anti-Trump demonstrations. Still, as Boomers rally around bitterly partisan purveyors of identity politics, give Millennials credit: Their preferred candidate may be a pie-in-the-sky ideologue, but at least his eyes are on the horizon and not the gutter.

That speaks to another important feature of the Sanders campaign, which more than a few conservatives have missed. We’ve lamented the lack of cultural memory that leaves young Americans self-identifying as socialists. We’ve scoffed at their economic ignorance, their hunger for freebies, and the general incoherence of their political views. Make no mistake: They are confused. From Occupy Wall Street to the campus-protest movement, Millennials’ highest-profile efforts at social diagnosis have been wildly unsuccessful.

#share#What do young people want nowadays? Is it really all about better sex and more free stuff? Let’s given them the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and imagine that their smorgasbord of conflicting views masks a desperate, flailing scramble for something more meaningful. Perhaps what they really want is a future.

Has either party clearly offered one? When conservatives think about the Millennial generation, the focus is on their softness, narcissism, and sense of entitlement. We eagerly tell twentysomethings that they should grow up, straighten their ties, and accept that remunerative work can often be boring. Get married. Stiffen that upper lip. Recognize that there’s more to life than “hanging out” — and that your special-snowflake quest for actualization is your own concern, not your employer’s.

For years, our politics has been wrapped in a nostalgic, Boomer-centric vision.

The criticisms are often fair, and the advice is mostly good. The problem with the curmudgeonly response is not that it’s wrong, but that it doesn’t address the central problem. The central problem is that America is at a crisis point in which our social and political narratives all seem to be running aground. That’s demoralizing for everyone, but especially for the young. How can young adults plan for the future when their elders keep suggesting there may not be one?

For years, our politics has been wrapped in a nostalgic, Boomer-centric vision. (Note that Bernie, mouthpiece of 20-year-olds, is not a Boomer. He’s older, hailing from the Silent Generation.) Most of us have a sense that the end is nigh, but we can’t see the future yet, so major news outlets go on blaring their dated political memes as an apocalyptic mood grips the nation. Across the political spectrum, commentators gesture toward climate change, ominous geopolitics, collapsing cultural mores, or our formidable debt, all converging on one point of agreement: The future is bleak.

RELATED: Millennials Embrace Socialism, but Do They Know What It Is?

Not knowing how to move forward, we keep trying to go back. Our presidential candidates illustrate this problem with particular clarity. Clinton blends ’70s-style feminism with an FDR-esque foreign policy for a dazzling display of “nothing new to see.” Trump appears in rat-pack demeanor, grabbing slogans from the Nixon campaign by way of promising the restoration of a decades-old economy. Both are running largely on assurances that they are not the other. With such bitter and backward-looking statesmen at the helm, is it surprising that the young are basically just lost? Why would we expect them to have wise solutions, or a forward-looking vision, when nobody else in America does?

#related#Actually, that isn’t quite true. One reason the Trump phenomenon is so bitter is because, on the right, we really have seen some positive signs in recent years. We have a rising cohort of fortysomething politicians and policymakers who seem serious about assessing our current problems and crafting prudent solutions. At both the state and federal levels, we’ve seen new proposals that would reform poverty relief, entitlements, and the criminal-justice system. We’ve heard dynamic conversations about how to tackle the massive inefficiencies in education and health care. And we’ve considered the best way to create a more startup-friendly tax and regulatory climate.

These conversions are still ongoing, but they’re happening — and they’re hopeful. Unfortunately, most young voters know almost nothing about these initiatives. It’s hard for serious ideas to get oxygen in such a polarized and grievance-driven climate.

Our moment may come, however. As principled conservatives contemplate the terrors of political exile, we should note that we have company here on the sidelines. Millennials too have been benched. They’re here in numbers, with a long voting life still ahead of them. They hate Trumpism, but they’re desperate for new ideas. Can we persuade them that conservatives have the wherewithal to build a future? If so, America’s may still be within our grasp.

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