The GOP's Gen Y Problem: Young Republicans Alienated by Party's Social Conservatism


Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), there was a guy with a mohawk. I suppose this was notable because the GOP is generally a mohawk-free zone. Every time I passed said man throughout the day, a crowd was gathered, snapping his photo. It made me chuckle. He was no politician, pundit, or public intellectual. He was just a guy with a mohawk. At CPAC.

But while dude's hair choices may be atypical for young Republicans, his views aren't. Our mohawked friend—who goes by Rooster—is mentioned liberally in a recent article concerning the split between young and old party members on social issues. Rooster is part of an emerging young conservative cohort "who are pro-free market on fiscal issues and libertarian on social ones," The New York Times informs us, somewhat confusingly (so he's libertarian on everything, then?). "While his views represent a potential growth wing for a party that is losing among other demographics, they also show an emerging tension with the older social conservatives at the core of the party's base." 

I wrote about this last week in the context of a new Pew Research Survey on millennials. The survey revealed that more than half of Gen Y identifies as politically independent—though these young independents are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Surmising from this and previous polling data, along with anecdotal experience, it seems to hinge heavily on the GOP's handling of social issues. A majority of young people (regardless of political affiliation) support marriage equality and ending the drug war. And no matter where they fall on birth control issues such as whether Hobby Lobby should have to pay for it, most realize that it is a widely-used tool to prevent pregnancy and not some dirty thing that only dirty dirty whores need (a viewpoint all too rarely displayed by seasoned Republican politicians, whose feet are pretty much permanently wedged in their mouths when it comes to contraception). Even millennials who do have socially conservative views seem less likely than their elders to want to force them on all people through the state.

People say that young adults outgrow liberalism, which may be frequently true on economic issues. But it seems less likely that this generation will eventually "grow into" social intolerance. Certain liberal cultural ideas—like tolerance toward homosexuality and marijuana use—aren't going anywhere. As the Times puts it: "This youthful libertarianism is not fading when the Republicans of tomorrow graduate from college."

Right now, the Republican party is losing young independents because of its insistence on making culture war issues preeminent. But they could soon start losing more young Republicans, too. The Times suggests that GOP politicians embrace more libertarian attitudes or pay the price in upcoming elections. But as someone with no vested interest in whether Republicans win elections, I think the more interesting question is why all these socially-liberal young folks still self-identify as Republicans?

Psssst, Gen Y: There is a third way, you guys. The way of no party. The way of small-l libertarianism. Come over to the dark side, dear socially liberal young Republicans!

Unlike the GOP, we won't try to change you. We won't try to insist you grow out of loving liberty for all. You can even still vote Republican when (if) decent candidates present themselves. Or vote Democrat. Or don't vote at all.

Meanwhile, you can be pro free markets and fiscal responsibility while also supporting personal liberty and sensible drug policy. [You can also be pro- or anti-abortion rights; there's a libertarian case for both…] And you can do so without the outside world assuming you're a big, intolerant jerk. When "the Duke freshman porn star" recently defended her membership in the college Republicans, she complained that people automatically assume her membership makes her "a bigot and a homophobe." When I recently attended a panel of young conservatives talking about poverty, they complained that people think the right's poverty policy involves nothing more than cruelly cutting benefits.

But these are the primary connotations of the GOP among much of Gen Y: Bigotry, homophobia, lack of empathy (not to mention sexism and sexual prudishness). As frustrating as it is for less socially-conservative Republicans to be lumped in with those associations, the party has done little to make them seem undeserved. And it won't, until younger party members start turning away in large numbers.

For young Republicans who really want to change the GOP, the best way may be to leave the party for a while. In the meantime, we'll be waiting over here all pro-markets and pro-tolerance.