“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.” – Ronald Reagan, from his inaugural speech as the governor of California, January 5, 1967
The arc of history is so long that we often forget how quickly it can be changed. We grow comfortable and complacent with the status quo, and forget the immeasurable challenges that were overcome to achieve it. But my how we love our freedom. Millennials, more than any generation, reject conformity-demanding structures and demand the ability to choose how, where and why they live, work, study, and consume. And yet, we’re also the generation furthest removed from any existential struggle to preserve it.
That strong desire for freedom and choice should align well with the Grand Old Party’s traditional skepticism of big government and embrace of individual rights, and yet millennial voters are typically thought of as conservative. Why? We partnered with the Republican State Leadership Committee on a report to try and answer that very question.
“Simple,” writes CRNC Chairwoman Alexandra Smith. “the Grand Old Party has gotten stale. There’s too much old and not enough grand in the way we express our party’s values to next generation voters.”
Of course, actually figuring out how to freshen up the Republican Party in a way that actually connects with young voters in a meaningful way is a much more difficult task. The first task is to identify the characteristics—how they view the world, how they think through problems, and what they value in people and institutions—in order to chart a relevant policy path forward.
Our survey and focus groups found that young adults are cautious, but desirous of change; want the things their parents had, but afraid they won’t be able to afford them; and perhaps most importantly, are no longer convinced that hard work leads to success. The report highlights the importance of refocusing Republicans’ message about the intersection of opportunity, work and the American Dream.
For Republicans, who often lean on messaging that extols the virtue of hard work and fights against a culture of victimhood, we find ourselves often making a case about what it takes to get ahead in America that puts us at odds with what most young people think about how our economy works.
For young voters, Republicans instead have an opportunity to connect by talking about what is creating social and economic immobility and how to break down barriers, many of which are rooted in a centralized, top-down government that has fallen down on the job.
The shift in messaging can have a huge impact. For instance, when young adults were presented asked who cares more about creating an economy that benefits everyone, Democrats handily defeated Republicans. But when asked which statement they agreed with more: “We need Washington to do more to protect consumers and regulate the banks in order to fix the economy” or “We need to open up the economy to encourage bottom-up growth and innovation in communities across the country,” strong majorities of young Americans chose the latter.
We understand that simply saying “open,” and “bottom up,” and “innovative” aren’t enough to overcome the skepticism of young voters, especially if those words are merely seen as window dressing to a party that continues to overlook their concerns. Instead, these words must be the window itself, providing a glimpse into a party that cares about people from all walks of life, acknowledges barriers to equal opportunity and tackles them head-on, and is willing to work hard and be pragmatic in order to get things done.
This isn’t about compromising our party’s core principles, instead, to quote Edmund Burke, it is about using our “gift for re-expressing [our] principles to fit the times.” The power of freedom is timeless, but it is also perpetually at risk. It is our job to make the message of freedom relevant to an entire generation of voters who prize its benefits, but haven’t seen either party fighting for it.
Interested in reading the full report, including survey top lines and focus group materials? CLICK HERE!