Montesquieu, an 18th century political philosopher, famously observed that societies tend to have particular sensibilities and attitudes that drive politics. He called these sensibilities the “springs” of politics. Though it is perhaps no longer fashionable among the blogerati to quote long-dead philosophers, bear with me but a moment. Montesquieu’s springs can, I believe, shed some light on the political behavior of the millennial generation. It is the countervailing forces of two key springs of millennials — social liberalism on one hand and political alienation on the other — that can both explain our generation’s electoral behavior and provide hints about how the GOP can capture the hearts, minds and votes of young people.
The first spring is social. Young people are liberal when it comes to what Montesquieu would have called the private sphere. To put the matter simply, Millennials believe that people should be allowed to be people in whatever way they choose. So long as the GOP opposes gay marriage, the right to choose and the legalization of undocumented immigrants, they will lose young voters to Democrats. This is not, however, because of a deep ideological commitment to the Democratic Party. Millennials are attitudinally liberal, not politically so; they simply can’t bring themselves to vote for a political party that stands in the way of the freedom of choice in the bedroom and at the doctor’s office.
To repair this divide, Republicans can and should draw on the intellectual resources of libertarianism, an important strand of their own tradition. As true and consistent libertarians have long recognized, the state has no place in regulating the affairs of the heart nor the affairs of the body. The sooner the Republicans recognize this fact, the better; there will simply be no place for current strands of social conservatism in a future shaped by our generation’s value. The American right must reorient itself or risk long-term obsolescence.
The second spring is different, and on its account both Republicans and Democrats face a substantial and critical challenge. To understand this second spring, we have to take a small step back.
Millennials came of age during the first decade of the 21st century. From the perspective of effective and fair governance, it was a decade in which America sank from the shallow depths of ineptitude to the deep fathoms of catastrophe. Bearing witness to the failures of intelligence in September 2011 and to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, to Hurricane Katrina and to the financial crisis, young people feel nothing but disillusionment towards politics. This sense of disenchantment, of alienation, is the second spring of the millennial generation, and it is one that both parties have an incentive to reverse.
Democrats believe themselves to be ahead in this race. But what shine Obama brought back to the political realm for young people has been tarnished by a recognition of the profound and historic death-dance of polarization into which both parties are locked – and which immobilizes the parties from confronting the key challenges of our era. While young people vote Democratic today, the force of this second spring – the power of political alienation – will soon drive them out of politics altogether. One leading indicator of this fact is that young people are increasingly turning to the private sector and to non-profits to solve social problems once considered the provenance of government.
A spring's power is connected to its base. Millennials are alienated from politics because of the failures of governance and the polarization of the parties, a polarization which is quickly reaching tragic proportions. That party which makes a genuine effort to supersede polarization and provide effective governance will slowly unwind this spring, drawing in young voters in the years to come. The best way to do so – to unwind the spring of political alienation – it to embrace another aspect of the Millennial mindset. In addition to being socially liberal, our generation is at its heart pragmatic. We are more practical than ideological, more concerned with outcomes than approach. By adopting this results-oriented attitude, Republicans will earn the long-term support of young people. Or, if they so choose, give the Democrats the chance to cement that support, and in the process cede the largest generation in American history once and for all.