The PJ Tatler

Is the GOP Doomed by the 'Generation Gap'?

Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”

And any man who writes on politics for New York Magazine has neither heart nor brains — especially if his name is Jonathan Chait:

How doomed are conservatives? Pretty doomed, if you look carefully at the Pew Research Survey’s close analysis of the youth vote in the 2012 elections. The Republicans’ long-term dilemma has generally been framed in racial terms, but it’s mainly a generational one. The youngest generation of voters contains a much smaller proportion of white voters than previous generations, and those whites in that generation vote Republican by a much smaller margin than their elders. What’s more, younger voters supported President Obama during the last two election cycles for reasons that seem to go beyond the usual reasons — social issues like gay marriage and feminism, immigration policy, or Obama’s personal appeal — and suggest a deeper attachment to liberalism. The proclivities of younger voters may actually portend a full-scale sea change in American politics.

Chait needs a quick trip to the Wizard of Oz. In addition to heart and brains, he might see if the old humbug has any common sense rattling around in that sack.

The transformation of the young from liberal to conservative begins when they get their first paycheck as teenagers. The look of shock and dismay on these kids’ faces would be comical if you didn’t remember having the same look on your face when you got your first paycheck. “What’s FICA?” they wail. The disbelief they feel that the government would take so much — enough to fill up their gas tanks or get a couple of CDs — is not quite a Road to Damascus moment, but it certainly gets the wheels turning.

Feeling this way doesn’t make them any less compassionate for those less fortunate, or resentful of those on the dole. But it is their first lesson in understanding the adage that all those who can’t wait for their “free” health care under Obamacare seem to have forgotten: “There is no free lunch.” The first step in the transformation of liberal to conservative is a cognitive one — the understanding that funding the government so that it can bestow all those benefits is a fine thing in the abstract. But when it comes to you having actual skin in the game when the government taxes you for those benefits, your perspective is altered dynamically.

Obviously, not all young people who harbor liberal tendencies end up being conservative. But something happens to many youngsters when they hit their 20s, get married, have a kid or two, and discover the real world — the world of mortgages, and bills, and saving for college, and scrimping and saving for that vacation every year. They concern themselves with things they never gave a second thought to when they were kids: values, morals, and the responsibility that comes with raising children.

Conservatism as a philosophy answers many of these needs. Conservatism as a political ideology, not so much. Some conservative ideologues have hijacked the philosophy of conservatism and enslaved it to a very unconservative agenda that is non-inclusive, revanchist, and destructive of community. It’s not that young people are any more or less liberal than they were in previous generations. Nor is it true that gay marriage and “free” contraceptives will make them permanently leftist in their worldview. In fact, to make that point, Chait goes whistling by the grave yard because he surely knows that with age brings wisdom. And the riot of conceits that still defines liberalism usually doesn’t survive the path to adulthood.

The “Millennial Generation” (we have to call them something) is no different than any other generation. Conservatives like to say that kids today have been brainwashed by liberal academia. We were saying the same thing 30 years ago, just like they were saying it 20 years ago and 10 years ago. Young people have always absorbed liberal ideas from their teachers and sought to change the world. We used to think you could do it through music and marching. We ended up ruining far more than we changed. What we know now is that a single entrepreneur has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people in real, concrete ways that no liberal could have imagined 30 years ago, and few could imagine today.

What has changed — and what is driving the young away from the GOP — is the make-up of much of the base of the current incarnation of the Republican Party — dominated by hyperpartisan ideologues, anti-government activists, and Christian zealots at war with modernity. Until more reasonable, pragmatic voices begin to be heard in the GOP, writers like Jonathan Chait will continue to fool themselves into thinking that the generational evolution from liberal to conservative has been halted and that liberals have won a permanent victory.