The “Young Conservative Problem” is Current Conservatives’ Fault
The most influential force on young people deciding on whether or not to be conservative is the behavior of current conservatives.
I read, and reread several times with interest, a piece in National Review by Isaac Schorr entitled “ A Wake-Up Call for Conservatives “ and subtitled “Millennials and Generation Z show no sign of growing more conservative over time like the Boomers did. We must address the age gap.” After citing statistics to the point, he lays out two conclusions:
These results should lead the conservatives interpreting them to two distressing, but hopefully motivating, conclusions.
The first conclusion is an obvious one: A college education is a not-so-golden ticket to a worldview that embraces the premises of the Left. This may be a seemingly self-evident truth to conservatives, but there are those who deny it. This poll makes it obvious that time spent on a campus — being governed by progressive administrators, being taught by progressive faculty, and most important, living amongst progressive peers — tends to turn you into a much more progressive person. Conservatives are quick to complain about this phenomenon, but it’s very possible that we underestimate its consequences…
…The second conclusion naturally follows from the first: Conservatives are not doing enough to persuade young people. Part of this can be attributed to a complacency borne out of the belief that as a matter of course, foolish young liberals will transform into wise old conservatives.
Millennials show no sign of growing more conservative over time like the Boomers did, and there’s little evidence to suggest Generation Z will revert back to the mean. There’s nothing inevitable about generational ideological shifts — they must be earned, not counted upon. I’ve presented my own vision of what I think conservative students can do to make a difference on their own campuses, but their efforts won’t be nearly enough. What is needed is a concerted effort by conservative organizations, publications, and politicians to appeal to America’s youth, an effort that goes beyond sloganeering and providing fan service to those few who already consider themselves young men and women of the Right.
This focus on the need to have the next generation of young conservatives groomed and persuaded from amongst the ranks of college students is not new, of course. Modern conservative activism has been especially focused on campuses for a variety of reasons and methods, from genuine grassroots politicking and base building to the grifting roadshows of the Charlie Kirks of the world. Disdain for the dominance of progressive ideology in the groves of academe is a permanent fixture in the talking points of the right, and not without merit. It is inarguable that higher education is dominated by the ideas and ideologies of the left, that conservatives have made little to no inroads institutionally or culturally in the last few decades to seriously change that dynamic. It is also apparent that a thriving business of political organizations focused on “making young conservatives” while eliciting fundraising from full grown and well-heeled conservatives is part of the mix as well. There is a lot of lather, rinse, repeat to this constant push to reach, recruit, and retain young conservatives.
The thing is, this discussion all too often is taken up as if the young people themselves develop their ideological preferences in some sort of vacuum that only gestates from age 18 to whenever they graduate from college. Schorr correctly notes that the right has made headway with the non-college educated, and that short term that might work out electorally. But he goes on to proffer — correctly, I think — that “it stands to reason that having fewer conservatives with college degrees who can enter fields such as education, journalism, government work, and political activism will have longer-term implications.”
Where I find myself lost with this line of thinking — not specifically to Schorr but to the long-running insistence that college students are a conservative harvest just wanting for labors to gather it in — and not dealing with the issue that those four-years or so of college are a fraction of those young people’s development. The tail end of a young person’s development at that. And we hear, and see, and read, this same line of thinking year, after year, after year.
Consider, no competent parent would wait until a young person left for college, then on Day 1 of no supervision write them an email explaining how to perceive and function in the world after 18 years of not doing so. Or the truly up-to-date parental unit could work up a TikTok video or two explaining morality and ethics in lieu of a lifetime of mirroring it as that young person’s primary role model. Parenting is hard not because children learn what you tell them, but because they learn everything about the people primarily raising them, copycatting their behavior, mannerisms, language, and responses while they develop their own. Children are the world’s best copycats, and as such young adults become the world’s best detectors of hypocrisy when the words and teachings of those authority figures don’t match the actions and lifestyles they see every day, all day, every which way.
These observations include politics and ideology. Seeing if the behavior and the rhetoric matches is how the eyes of youth judge adults. If conservatives and the wider right want to influence potentially young conservative minds and shape their ideological futures on and off-campuses going forward, some self-examination is in order first. What has the last five years taught young people about the conservative ideology? What leaders have emerged and influenced all the things that were done politically and socially under the nomenclature of “conservative” for them to judge? What does the future of conservatism look like to someone who spent their formative high school/college years watching the events of the last five years as President Obama gave way to President Trump who gave way to President Biden?
Actions matter to young people, not words. What has the last five years of mainline conservatism taught them about that label?
These arguments over young conservatives are constantly made online and among the chattering class in a bubble of the priors of those who make them. The reality of having to come out of that bubble and try to convince folks not in that sanitized space to cross over and join the evangelists on college campuses is not as cut and dried as think pieces make it seem. Or viral YouTube videos of internet famous conservative personalities arguing and causing scenes on college campuses. Such things are pitched as revolutions by their creators. They are not, which you can tell easily because if that was true the necessity for think pieces on not reaching young people would not be necessary.
The single most influential force on young people making a decision on whether or not to be conservative is the behavior of the current crop of conservatives. If young folks are abandoning conservatism in numbers, and not returning later in life like past generations, any analysis as to why needs to start not with the young but the generation those young people judged and found wanting. Much like the parent who preaches one thing to a child while living another, watching an ideology proclaim one thing while doing something else is going to leave an indelible impression. An impression that no appeal to policy, culture, or tradition is going to overcome. Appealing to Reagan to folks who are too young to remember W. Bush being president isn’t going to work either.
The issue of “what the next generation of conservatives are” also has to labor under the problem that there no longer is even a widely held definition of what “conservative” even means today. Smaller government? Two of the largest expanses of government in my lifetime, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, both are/were championed by conservatives. Fiscal responsibility? A fine concept and phrase, but again the last few years have shown too many use the term to mean “no money for what I hate and infinite money for what I want.” Personal responsibility? A fine thing, but requires consistency of not arguing that the political flavor of the day, circumstances, or dominant personality should be excused in all things for the cause, which is the opposite of responsible.
The words are fine things. The slogans are wonderfully catchy and easily Tweetable. The concepts in their purest forms have plenty of merit to discuss. The biggest hinderance to them are not their application, but the lifestyles of those who espouse them that say one thing with their political nomenclature while their conduct on- and off-line proclaims another. Young conservatives only have what current conservatives give them to work with as a starting point. The data shows them rejecting it in droves. Blaming the young conservatives for not wanting to lather, rinse, repeat is not how that equation gets turned around.
Marketing, and yet another 501c3 that takes money from the old in the name of recruiting young conservatives, is not going to fix what is rapidly become a generational problem for those who want to operate under the banner of conservatism in America. And whatever fix will work, has to start with conservatism as it exists right now, today, in the year of our Lord 2021, looking at itself honestly in a mirror. Then, adjusting accordingly.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on April 21, 2021.