It’s no secret that younger generations often tilt leftwards. Progressive causes usually seem to be driven by passionate young activists, and the rest of their age group is disproportionately inclined toward a similar political disposition. For young people, it seems, the Left has always been home. But now, more than ever, America’s youth seem to be overwhelmingly liberal — significantly more so, in fact, than previous generations. Recent studies show this is as true of Gen Z as it is of Millennials.
Perhaps this is not surprising: Progressivism is, in many ways, a political embodiment of youthfulness. In our early years, the future seems to lie before us in infinite possibility. Young people always believe that theirs is the generation that will finally change the world, doing what the cynics of the previous generation could not. It is unsurprising, then, that the Left attracts so many young activists: Currently, young liberals are nearly three times more likely than young conservatives to engage in political activism, and self-described liberal Democrats are roughly twice as likely as other Americans to be politically active. One possible explanation for this youthful political fervor on the Left might be that progressivism’s inherent characteristics, especially its idealism and vision of unconstrained political possibility, make it attractive to politically minded youth: Progressives are often inclined toward a certain type of political idealism. Philosophers such as Rousseau, whose worldview inspired many progressives, believed that human nature is highly malleable, even perfectible, so long as the right corrections are made to the social structure. This is understandably an attractive idea for young people, who are often more inclined to this limitless optimism than their older, more world-weary counterparts.
Whatever the precise causes, the ascendant generation portends a change in political attitudes on a host of issues: Its opinions on immigration, the favorability of diversity, and climate change are all markedly different from those of older voters. The ethnic makeup of younger voter blocs is different, too: Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history, and Gen Z is on track to be even more so, a trend that has correlated with younger voters’ farther-leftward lean.
This political shift is not confined just to the ranks of young progressives: Millennial Republicans are more open to same-sex marriage and immigration than their older counterparts, and they are decidedly more concerned about climate change. Large majorities of young voters of all political dispositions share an acute distaste for Donald Trump. Just 27 percent of Millennials approve of him, while 65 percent disapprove; among Gen Zers, the numbers are similar.
Yet young people are not uniformly more liberal than their parents. By many accounts, for example, they are significantly more pro-life than older generations were at their age, as well as more supportive of gun rights. Those trends, at least, suggest that conservatism should be more popular among young voters today than it was among young voters a generation ago. And it is not. Conservatives might rightly criticize the progressive worldview as deeply naïve, but they evidently lack an aspirational je ne sais quois of their own to offer young voters.
History shows that modern Republicans can be aspirational and idealistic while remaining true to conservative principles and, in doing so, win back the hearts and minds of the next generation. The youth vote was not always guaranteed for the Democrats: George Bush Sr. won a majority of it, as did Richard Nixon. Students packed rooms on college campuses to hear William F. Buckley Jr; the 1967 Time cover featuring WFB declared that “conservatism can be fun.” Indeed it can.
Most significant, though, young voters went disproportionately for Ronald Reagan in 1984; in particular, voters aged 18 to 24 supported him by a disproportionately high margin of 61 percent to Walter Mondale’s 39 percent. Reagan’s confident, forward-looking vision rallied them to the Republican party, helping to swell its ranks from 11 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in 1968 to 25 percent of that age group in 1984. His conservatism was hardly the petulant chauvinism that infects some corners of the contemporary Republican party — rather, it was an expression of an abiding love of the American project, a gratitude for our cultural and political inheritance, and a deep faith in the virtue of the American people. When Reagan spoke, he channeled the idealistic, bright-eyed optimism of young Americans across the country.
Donald Trump is, in many ways, a repudiation of this vision — his is often a politics of grievance rather than celebration. Even within the GOP, young voters do not seem to be too fond of the president: After Trump’s election, nearly a quarter of Republican voters under the age of 30 defected from the party. There has been no evidence to show that they have returned; Republicans would do well to change this.
Doing so will require developing new policy proposals or at least reevaluating some existing priorities, and some conservatives will believe that core principles are being sacrificed. But the reality is that no principles have value if they cannot be put into practice, and political doctrines such as conservatism and progressivism must either command a majority or decline. And in many cases it will be possible to address progressive concerns with conservative means. The issue of climate change, to take one example — an issue that many young people of all political sympathies are rightly concerned with — should be reclaimed from the Left. Environmentalism is, at its heart, a deeply conservative impulse. There has been some encouraging movement on this front: The recent formation of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus, for example — a bicameral Republican caucus that aims to take on environmental issues from a conservative perspective — is an excellent step in the right direction. But there is still significant work to be done in this area as well as others. Looking at any major issue as inherently left-wing, and therefore not of concern to conservatives, is not part of a viable political strategy.
Progressivism, of course, has its own set of potentially crippling strategic problems. It has adopted a set of priorities that, while popular among young voters, alienates large swathes of the electorate. The recent Democratic presidential-primary debates were a case study in this ludicrosity: Abolition of private health insurance, de facto open borders, and a Green New Deal all received enthusiastic support from top-tier candidates. But rather than scoff at the absurdity of it all, Republicans need to offer a sensible and aspirational alternative.