GOP should moderate social platform to win over fiscally conservative youth

Though President Obama won the youth vote, John Boehner and fellow Republicans' message of fiscal responsibility could appeal to younger voters. The GOP needs to recognize that its platform on social issues drastically undercuts its potential fiscal-conservative appeal with my generation.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill Nov. 29. about negotiations with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and President Barack Obama on avoiding the 'fiscal cliff.' Op-ed contributor Jack Turnage writes: 'Like many of my friends, my vote was cast less for Obama than against Republican social policies. If the GOP were to moderate its social stances, I would think very hard about voting Republican in 2016. Many of my peers would need less persuasion.'

Though the presidential election is now weeks past, Republicans continue to soul-search about the best path forward. With the fiscal cliff looming, some Republicans have worried publicly that their party will be perceived as protecting the wealthy if they don’t agree to raise tax rates for the top 2 percent of income-earners.

In fact, the GOP has a timely, compelling message on fiscal responsibility that could appeal to younger voters like me who look ahead to the massive entitlement liabilities our generation will have to pay for. But one of the biggest reasons President Obama won the election was due to his overwhelming support among young voters on social issues like gay rights, women’s health, and immigration.

As the GOP looks to retool its message for 2016, it needs to recognize that its platform on social issues drastically undercuts its potential fiscal-conservative appeal with those younger voters.

The portion of the electorate made up of 18-29 year-olds has been rising since at least 2000, reaching 19 percent this year. The Millennial voting-bloc share of the electorate is estimated to continue to grow in coming years, and national exit poll data show that youth voters now outnumber seniors. The Young Democrats of America says youth liberalism is ubiquitous across demographics: “Young African-Americans, young Hispanics, and young women are particularly inclined to support Democrats…young independents, young white men, and even young evangelicals all favor Democrats.”

According to national exit polls this year, 64 percent of 18-29 year-olds supported a woman’s right to abortion. Youth voters also widely support gay marriage, the DREAM Act, access to contraception, and the actuality of climate change.

What does all this mean? The Republican Party cannot continue to espouse an extreme social platform and expect to win national elections. Mr. Obama carried youth by a 23-point margin this election. The fact that the GOP could muster only 37 percent youth support at a time when youth unemployment remains more than twice the national average and student debt has exceeded $1 trillion shows Republican social stances are likely substantially undermining the party’s popularity in this cohort.

Young adults on the whole view the GOP’s attitude on gay rights as less an attempt to protect the institution of marriage than bigotry, and its stances on women’s health and immigration more civil rights assaults than sober conservatism. I do not know a single one of my peers – Republican or Democrat – who would be willing to defend the GOP’s full social plank.

Yet Republicans have a strong case to make among youth. In many ways, our generation, particularly the youngest part, could be convinced to distrust “big government.” My peers and I have come of age during two wars of foreign “nation-building,” unsustainable debt and spending, and a monumental economic crash. Harvard’s John Della Volpe finds evidence of that shift. In contrast to older Millennials (aged 25-29), today’s 18-24 year-olds are more likely to identify as “conservative” than “liberal,” a switch perhaps attributable to the Democratic stewardship of the recession.

Like many of my peers, I do not trust the Democrats to do much better than muddle through the handling of America’s economy, and I am alarmed by some liberals’ insistence that bloated postwar-era entitlement programs need no reforming.

The youth of today, not unlike like generations before, place a high value on autonomy and equity – in fiscal matters, but also on social issues. Voting for a party whose social policies appear to be more informed by prejudices than policies is anathema to the principles a critical mass of young voters hold dear.

In the aftermath of the election, the modern Republican Party now has an opportunity to unsaddle itself from the social-conservative right and move center. The GOP could define itself as the party that many young voters want it to be; one of fiscal prudence and economic sense that provides a welcome antidote to Democratic statist orthodoxy. Centrist Republicans should realize that a presidential election loss, to an eminently beatable president no less, is strong justification for a GOP shift to the center on social issues.

Such a pivot would inevitably make the influential and moneyed religious-social-conservative wing of the GOP howl. But come Election Day 2016, Republicans could win over more members of our diverse younger generation by championing traditional conservative principles of limited government, both socially and economically, than by continuing to kowtow to the wing of the GOP that would rather curtail the individual freedoms of those it doesn’t agree with.

On Nov. 6, I voted for the first time. Like many of my friends, my vote was cast less for Obama than against Republican social policies. If the GOP were to moderate its social stances, I would think very hard about voting Republican in 2016. Many of my peers would need less persuasion. The Republican Party could be one that youth flock to, a party that emphasizes its true principles of individual liberties and limited government. For the sake of its political future, the health of our governing balance, and America’s economic wellbeing, Republicans should seize this opportunity.

Jack Turnage is a senior at Kent Denver School in Denver.

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