The Republican Party is losing millenials. But there are a few policy areas in which the GOP could make major strides in reversing that trend. Some of the problem, as the College Republican National Committee wrote this week, undoubtedly lies in the policy arena — marriage equality being the big player here — and some lies in image (the GOP’s chronic underperformance among immigrants and minorities comes to mind).
I’d like to continue the analysis by taking a look at two more ways the GOP could make serious inroads with young voters: first, by emphasizing and embracing science and technology, and second, by focusing attention on the party’s increasingly popular Libertarian wing. This analysis will not include issues on which Republicans can make major strides with all generational groups — entitlement and tax reform and a renewed focus on the middle class, for instance.
Become the party of science and technology
The Republican Party constantly bangs on about the value of free markets and entrepreneurialism, but simultaneously manages to poll badly among the most dynamic and fastest-growing sector of the 21st-century economy: young tech entrepreneurs and scientists. Exhibit A: Silicon Valley, California, where Republicans have quietly begun to step up engagement and investigation efforts.
A great deal of young people's ingrained electoral dislike for Republicans may stem from the party’s antediluvian stance on social issues and its lack of demographic diversity; the entrepreneurial young tend to be socially progressive and ethnically diverse. Tech titans also know that the 21st-century economy requires close collaboration with, not antagonism toward, government; Silicon Valley’s keystone and my alma mater, Stanford University, benefits hugely from federal research funding dedicated to STEM fields and a continuous flow of high-skill foreign students. Startups, too, require high-skill workers and depend strongly on the existence of a top-quality education system to provide them. (This should not be an unfamiliar story to the party founded by, among others, the man who first established federal support for the majority of America’s public universities.)
The GOP has thus managed to alienate a hugely valuable voter bloc: The economically successful, upwardly mobile members of the millenial elite who will, in 5 to 10 years, have earned a lot of money and believe they worked hard enough to deserve it. Meritocratic millenials also disdain cumbersome government regulations and waste; startup culture is all about efficiency, ease of use, and providing the most cutting-edge services at the lowest possible (even free) cost, making it doubly insulting that Republicans have made few inroads into voters at the heart of California’s high-tech economic engine.
How to fix the whole mess? Make Silicon Valley your model. (It’s already happening, although not without problems: note RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ not-so-subtle nod here at PolicyMic to the transformative power of “garages and dorm rooms and labs.”) It’s high time for Republicans to champion science, technology, and progress (as the Economist seems to believe they will). The party should aggressively advocate for increased high-skill immigration, push for higher federal investment in science and technology research, publicly embrace new technologies, and continue to advocate for lower taxes and fewer regulations on small and growing businesses. It could take, as a minor example, airbnb’s side against the hotel industry in New York, cultivating an image that it favors up-and-coming young businesses against the entrenched forces of industry.
All this will require, of course, abandoning the party’s anti-intellectual reluctance to acknowledge the scientific basis for climate change and evolution, a turnoff for pragmatic and progress-driven millenials. A government that works smarter (not necessarily less) can also be leaner, cleaner, and more efficient. And that sounds like a Republican (and millenial) dream.
Young conservatives — and young liberals, for that matter — tend to identify more heavily with the libertarian wings of their respective parties. Reason found that only 9% of millenials favored both free markets and banning marijuana — the socially conservative position — while a whopping 30% favored both free markets and legalizing marijuana for recreational use. National Review Young Turk Betsy Woodruff argued in 2012 that the GOP should jump on the train out West to Colorado and Washington, which legalized marijuana use at the ballot box last November, in a strategic move to “expand [the Republican] base while alienating the president from his.”
Given the popularity of the Paul dynasty among young voters, that may not be a poor move. As Jamelle Bouie notes at the Washington Post, young people opposed to the Iraq War constituted a crucial element of Obama’s 2008 victory. A more libertarian stance on domestic surveillance, given millenials’ Paulian reluctance to trade civil liberties for increased security, might also benefit the GOP, especially given President Obama’s expansion of the federal drone program and his preservation of unpopular Bush-era War on Terror initiatives, among them Guantanamo Bay. (Hint: suggesting that a U.S. citizen, who committed a crime on American soil and has not been proven to have any connections to foreign terrorist organizations, be tried as an enemy combatant may not be your best move.)
If the GOP wants to permanently win over millenials, the party faces a long uphill battle. To remain relevant, Republicans should seriously consider (for a start):
- Endorsing marriage equality as soon as is practicable.
- Reaching out to immigrant and minority communities, a key component of an unprecedentedly diverse generation. That must include both concrete policy shifts - on immigration, the Dream Act, and science and technology funding, among others - as well as undergoing major image reconstruction surgery.
- Reducing and downplaying the party’s alienating social conservatism in favor of the libertarian strand of governance that has energized young voters, from the war on drugs to national security. Given President Obama’s continuation of many Bush-era War on Terror policies, this remains a highly fruitful avenue for exploration.
- Supporting science, technology, and research by both increasing funding and abandoning, among other planks, the party’s outdated reluctance to embrace the reality of evolution and climate change. The GOP has an opportunity to gain significant support among a millenial electorate accustomed to disruptive technological and economic revolution. Now is the time to seize it.