The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has a good column up that should underscore the importance of winning the youth vote. As she notes, voting habits and patterns are often formed during our early years. “The Americans who came of age under FDR,” she writes, “leaned more Democratic than the electorate as a whole for the rest of their voting lives.”
Winning the youth vote isn’t just about today — it’s about tomorrow.
When we look at candidates on both side of the aisle who have done well with the youth — Obama and Reagan, for example — we see some similarities. They were charismatic, romantic, and idealistic.
Obama’s “change you can believe in” slogan and imagery speak for themselves. But consider Reagan’s break from Burkean conservatism when he quoted Thomas Paine, saying: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
To be sure, many conservatives find this to be unseemly and distasteful — and not just for philosophical reasons. Jonah Goldberg has voiced legitimate concerns about how we worship at the altar of youth culture. And if you want a real blast from the past, back in 2007 Tucker Carlson and I debated Obama’s “youth movement.” (I applauded Obama’s political savvy; Tucker called it “scary.” We were both probably right.)
These are valid concerns, but also moot. Debating whether or not candidates should focus on youth outreach (or suggesting we raise the voting age) is an academic exercise, at this point. Not seeking the youth vote essentially equates to unilateral disarmament.
So how can Republicans compete? I think the first step is to actually seek to understand what inspires young people.
Douglas Hyde was a seasoned communist who served as editor of the London Daily Worker. He later renounced his affiliation, converted to Catholicism, and wrote a book called, “Dedication and Leadership.” The purpose of the book was to train Catholics to be as effective as the communists (at the time, the sense was that they were the winning side.)
(Note: The irony of using a passé topic like communism to discuss outreach to young people does not escape me. But stick with me here…)
Among Hyde’s advice were some thoughts on how to attract young people. Rather than dismissing this outreach as a propagandistic tool of communists, he insisted that Catholics should emulate it:
“[Y]outh is a period of idealism. The communists attract them by appealing to that idealism, and they have been very successful in this. Too often, I believe, we have failed to appeal to the idealism of youth, and we have failed to use it. And we are the losers.
… I have travelled in nearly every country of the world, and everywhere I have gone, I have found that young people are idealistic. I can only conclude that that is the way God wants them, and I do not believe that it is good sense, quite apart from charity or justice, to sneer at the idealism of youth. Young people will have their dreams; they will dream of a better world; they will want to change the world and if we have no patience with them or make them feel that this is some kind of infantile disease, they will still pursue their idealistic courses; they will do it outside the family instead of within it.
This is one reason why you find so many lapsed Catholics in the Communist Party and similar movements. We fail to use this idealism of youth at our peril. We do not simply lose these people; a portion of them go right over to the opposite camp and become part of the most formidable opponent the Church has ever had to face.”
Conservatives can mock youth outreach and criticize their quixotic support for Obama (and their fading posters) — or, instead — tap into their own brand of youthful idealism.
The good news is that Sen. Rand Paul (see my recent post on his use of “design”) and Sen. Marco Rubio are perhaps better-positioned to tap into this market than any Republican since Reagan.
For conservatives, it can’t happen soon enough.