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Where are the young Republicans?

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Thursday, Nov 6, 2008

Andrew Gelman’s rundown of what happened in the 2008 U.S. presidential election has attracted a lot of attention, much of it directed at his finding that Republicans lost voters among the young and the very rich. This seems to be the fruits of running a jingoistic, anti-intellectual campaign that appealed to base forces of ignorance, race hatred and xenophobia. Will Wilkinson characterizes the cause of this as “secularization”:


Rich people who don’t go to church are especially socially liberal. The richer they get, the less they prioritize economic issues over social issues, as Inglehart’s “post-materialism” theory predicts. And, if I recall from recent surveys, there has been a big decline in religiosity among the young, which tends to go along with an increasingly socially liberal cast of mind. The overall effect is that the Republican Party has become too socially conservative for increasingly secular wealthy people and increasingly secular twenty-somethings. The GOP is now pretty clearly the party of the religious, white, middle-aged and elderly middle class–not a group with a shining political future.


An interesting assertion, since we so often hear that America is an extremely religious country and growing more so all the time. Candidates who reject evolution are not immediately laughed out their attempts to run for national office. Much political energy is expended debating the role of the words “under God” in the U.S. pledge of allegiance to the flag that many public-school students are basically forced to recite. Politicians who plainly reject church-state separation and seek to build their base by using the church as the basic building block are rife. Megachurches are presumed to be growing more and more mega, and prosperity gospel seems poised to become even more appealing as what will likely prove to be a long recession takes hold. But I hope Wilkinson is right, and that the same forces that encourage the exploitation of religion politically have also been at work in the media, prompted various outlets to trump up its omnipresence to cater to what is in fact a dwindling niche.


This fits in with my sincere hope that a stronger Republican party (or some new center-right third party) emerges from this election. Already there are signs of civil war in the G.O.P. with the proudly ignorant wing of the party trying to root out the “lepers” who gave “aid and comfort to the enemy” in questioning Sarah Palin’s qualifications. For those who dread the influence of religious bigotry on politics, nothing can be better than this rupture between those on the right who wish to engage in serious debate and the overgrown children who are excited by loyalty oaths, enemies lists, demagoguery and mass manipulation in the name of imposing their simplistic world view. (For another sampling of this mentality, read this WSJ op-ed, which Steve Benen suggests might be the most foolish editorial every printed in a national newspaper.)


So I agree with Greg Mankiw when he worries about the disappearing Young Republicans (as if such inquisitional campaigns as “Operation Leper” weren’t enough to permanently alienate young people still making the effort to think). “So what does the Republican Party need to do to get the youth vote back? If these Harvard students are typical (and perhaps they are not, as Harvard students are hardly a random sample), the party needs to scale back its social conservatism. Put simply, it needs to become a party for moderate and mainstream libertarians.” I wouldn’t join that party personally, but it would sharpen the public debate over meaningful issues that actually admit discussion. After all, when a party’s politics are basically religious tenets, as they have become for the G.O.P., there is no room for discussion at all.


It seems almost intuitively clear that nothing about the Republican platform has much appeal for the young: the essence of social conservatism is to legislatively constrict choice for the preservation of society as it has already been crystalized by an earlier generation and passed down through religious institutions. Historically, it’s an ideology that has been imposed on youth only by force. The high-profile young Republicans of the 1980s seemed to be overrepresented in media presentations, but these P.J. O’Rourke types seemed to be attracted not by the social agenda so much as the freedom from political correctness (that bogus specter so dear to right-leaning demagogues—complaining about political correctness is tantamount to whining, “Oh, come on, let me be a bigot. It’s funny!”) and the Republican championship of greed—the freedom to say whatever you want and hoard as much as you want.  Considering the manner in which tax cuts have been at the heart of every Republican campaign since Reagan, greed has really been the essence of the Republican appeal across the board. Can the young be inspired to be greedy rather than idealistic once again? Will there be an uplift fatigue, a weariness with the sort of earnest crusading that is already becoming trendy and found dramatic expression in the righteous street celebrations of Obama’s victory?


No one was happier than me that Obama won; I felt an enormous sense of relief. But I wonder about the people who would have felt uninvited to those street celebrations, and fear their hardening into a silent reactionary majority. Republicanism may rise again out of sheer contrarianism, a weird inversion of identity politics that has individuals choosing party allegiance out of novelty and the need for distinction rather than any ideological sympathy. No doubt much of the youth vote is earnestly liberal, but the profusion of Obama T-shirts and buttons reminded me of being in Philadelphia, seeing all the Phillies regalia people were wearing. Obama’s triumph among the young seems less a triumph of ideology than a triumph of an excellent, stylish youth marketing campaign. (McArdle makes a related observation, that Obama became a rooting interest, and his “fans” are now gloating.) Clearly there is a bandwagon effect with Obama, and he appeals to voters at a vicarious level. He enhances people’s sense of themselves without securing a single political accomplishment. If the ideology of youth is ultimately consumerism, Obama has proven a very attractive lifestyle good. But he will lose this appeal as he becomes a familiar, oversold brand.


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