Despite the pleas of a number of conservative thought leaders, tomorrow many Alabama Republicans will probably cast a vote for a conspiracy theorist and accused child molester. A year ago, the American people voted into the office of the presidency a man with no experience as a politician but plenty as a womanizer, Twitter troll, and narcissistic celebrity. And before you respond “but Hillary,” remember that Trump won the Republican nomination against a diverse buffet of actual conservatives. Many rightly worry about the long-term consequences of conservatives’ supporting leaders such as Trump and Moore in the service of short-term political victories. But the future of American conservatism is uncertain for reasons beyond the Republican party’s current existential crisis.
I’ve frequently heard the argument that changing racial and ethnic demographics are the biggest threat to conservatism in America. I find this position unconvincing. There is no inherent connection between these demographic variables and ideology. In fact, minority groups are often more conservative than white European Americans.
The biggest threats to conservatism are psychological, not demographic, trends. As an actual philosophy of life and not just a low-resolution tribal marker, conservatism thrives when people are mentally resilient, self-reliant, and strongly invested in the interpersonal bonds that make small government viable: family, friends, and community. At the national level, all of these psychological characteristics are in decline, and with them, so is principled conservatism.
Psychologist Jean Twenge documented many of these declines in her new book iGen. Using large national data sets, Twenge reveals that American teens and young adults today, compared with those of past generations, are more emotionally vulnerable and anxious. A number of surveys of college students paint a similar picture of young Americans becoming increasingly distressed.
The self-esteem and emotional-safety cultural movements that have shaped the views of psychologists, educators, parents, and politicians in the Western world are likely at least partially to blame. But regardless of the causes, increased psychological fragility means that today’s young adults are less emotionally prepared to independently navigate the stressors and uncertainties of adult life.
Further demonstrating a decline in personal independence, Twenge shows that, compared with past generations, today’s teens are less likely to have driver’s licenses, to work for money, and to spend time unsupervised. They are increasingly dependent on their parents — and subsequently, in many cases, on university administrators. On today’s college campuses, students desire more regulations and oversight, a departure from past generations that demanded fewer rules and more freedoms. Surveys of American adults reveal a disturbing level of anti-freedom views across age groups and political affiliations, but young adults appear particularly afraid of freedom and ill-prepared for it.
Scholars have proposed that some of these trends reflect the emergence of a slower life development. In other words, young people today may simply be taking a bit longer to reach full adulthood. Even if this is the case, there are political and policy implications. For one, the voting age hasn’t changed. If greater self-reliance makes conservatism more appealing and viable, it may be increasingly difficult to attract young voters to conservative candidates and ideas. Moreover, parents vote, and their views may be influenced by a culture of longer child dependence.
Americans are also less and less invested in, and perhaps less successful at, building the interpersonal and community bonds that nourish the conservative way of life. In iGen, Twenge notes that young Americans today are less likely to date and socialize without parental involvement and are also experiencing greater levels of loneliness.
Ironically, in the age of social media, young people feel more alone. Recently published studies show that the mere presence of a smartphone decreases enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. A number of social scientists have observed that isolation and loneliness are growing problems across age groups. Loneliness is now widely considered a major public-health threat, as it is associated with a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.
The changing social lives of Americans are also reflected in marriage statistics. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1960 72 percent of Americans 18 and older were married. By 2015 that number dropped to 50 percent. In 1960 men and women tended to marry in their early 20s. In 2016 the median age for first marriage reached a record high, 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women. Not surprisingly, then, Americans are also waiting longer to start families and having fewer kids.
Americans, and younger adults in particular, are also abandoning social religion. I use the term “social religion” because there are reasons to believe that the religious minds of people of all ages remain active, searching for some form of transcendent meaning. Most still believe in God or a universal spirit, describe themselves as spiritual, are captivated by the supernatural, and long to be part of something larger and more enduring than the mortal self. However, more than ever they are disinclined to identify with a traditional faith, belong to a church, or attend religious services. Young adults are consuming more New Age spirituality and paranormal-related media and products, but these are often solitary or superficially social behaviors that do not promote deep or lasting relationships and community bonds.
In many ways, Trumpism reflects the right-wing version of emotional safety and victimhood culture many conservatives criticize.
Though it may be tempting, it would be a mistake for liberals to see these trends as politically favoring them or helping the nation. A decline of principled conservatism doesn’t mean we will see a rise of liberalism or the diminishing of tribal politics. This brings us back to the ascension of Trump and the potential election of Roy Moore. The issue is more qualitative than quantitative. Low-quality conservative candidates won’t stop Republicans from tactically signaling their conservatism and finding ways to win elections. Regardless of the state of the party, people will probably continue to vote for their Republican tribe for a number of reasons. But will they personally live up to and favor political candidates who live up to conservative values? Winning elections is not the same as using conservative principles to address pressing social and economic challenges.
In many ways, Trumpism reflects the right-wing version of emotional safety and victimhood culture many conservatives criticize. Trump’s self-aggrandizing and fragile ego are emblematic of the self-esteem movement. Considering his age, he was ahead of the curve. Trump also employs safe-space tactics that have become all too common on many college campuses. Instead of promoting freedom, he champions censorship of speech he finds offensive and verbally attacks those who disagree him. Trump isn’t the future of conservatism. He is a prophetic warning of its retreat.
Conservatives have always been vital to the success of America. And there remain many doing their part to sustain themselves, support their families, and contribute to the prosperity of their communities and country. But the psychological profile that inspires the best of conservatism is in danger. Instead of submitting to fear, anger, and party loyalty for short-term political victories, conservatives should start thinking about future generations. Young Americans are watching.