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Darwin Is Coming for the GOP

A new survey of Generation Z shows that the Republican party is going to have to adapt or die.
January 25, 2019
Darwin Is Coming for the GOP
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 1964, 80 percent of Republican House members and 82 percent of Republican senators voted for the Civil Rights Act. In 1980, GOP presidential candidates spoke of Mexico as “our neighbor to the south” and supported schooling for illegal immigrant children so they wouldn’t be “made to feel that they’re living outside the law.” And throughout the 1980s, congressional Republicans had slightly more women in their caucus than the Democrats did.

Today, Republicans drag their feet before punishing a fellow member of Congress who espouses white nationalism, the GOP president has shut down the government over his demands for an expensive wall to keep out mythical terrorists, and, oh, by the way, Democratic women in the House of Representatives outnumber Republican women 89-13.

That’s the bad news.

The worse news is that the kids are noticing.

Last week Pew released a study that showed that members of Generation Z (those born after 1996) are “moving toward adulthood with a liberal set of attitudes and an openness to emerging social trends.”

The study covers a wide array of topics, from attitudes on race, gender, and sexuality to the environment to the role that government should play in our lives. If you consider that the current era’s increased polarization has everyone digging in on closely held beliefs and you read this study, a picture emerges: Young people on both the left and right seek an America that is socially liberal, racially diverse, environmentally crunchy—and disturbingly reliant on the government to make those visions a reality. Meanwhile, older Republicans are everyone’s cranky uncle at Thanksgiving.

The Trump presidency’s electoral (and political) degradation of the GOP at the same time we are experiencing such a significant cultural shift presents conservatives with an opportunity to consider the roots of our ideology, to decide what really matters and is worth preserving.

Let’s start with the orange elephant in the room. The youngs don’t like Donald Trump. The only generation that gives him a majority approval rating is the “silent” generation (those born before 1945). After that, Trump’s approval numbers by generation are downright grim. boomers: 43 percent; Gen-X: 38 percent; millennials: 29 percent; Gen-Z: 30 percent.

When the numbers are this stark, you don’t even have to project out a generation to see the electoral effects. Trump’s strongest cohort is people aged 73 to 90 in 2018. Some non-trivial percentage of those folks—probably upward of 5 percent—won’t be around even in November 2020.

Then there’s gay marriage: Young people are almost entirely supportive of it, with 85 percent of Gen-Z and millennials saying it’s a good thing or it doesn’t make a difference. If you’re still opposed, it’s time to surrender. Not only has it been almost 30 years since Andrew Sullivan made his eloquent “(Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” but the practice was legal in a growing number of states before Obergefell v. Hodges sealed the deal in 2015. In all that time, the universe neglected to open a black hole and swallow the earth as punishment. If you must console yourself, consider that marriage is an inherently conservative institution and two-parent families, whatever their marital status or partner makeup, create more positive outcomes for kids.

Another ayfkm moment comes from looking at the study’s results on race. Respondents who identified as Democrats were consistent across generational divides in supporting the idea that blacks aren’t treated fairly today, with anywhere from 76 percent (boomers) to 82 percent (Gen-Z and millennials) agreeing with that sentiment. By comparison, only 20 percent of older Republican generations supported that statement. Gen-Z Republicans were still far behind their Democratic counterparts in agreeing with this view, but there were more than twice as likely to agree (43 percent) as boomer Republicans.

(The Gen-Z Republicans seem to be convinced by (1) the data showing that blacks deal with higher poverty and incarceration rates, and that their encounters with police are more likely to be deadly; and (2) high-profile anecdotes which show black Americans being subjected to pernicious, ridiculous, and humiliating experiences. Republicans can point out the flaws of affirmative action and debate the causes of (and solutions to) poverty and crime rates. But they probably shouldn’t pretend that the problems aren’t real.)

It’s worth noting the questions in the Pew survey are geared toward pet liberal causes (no mention of abortion or gun control, for example). But there are still important takeaways for conservatives. You can scoff at the idea that support for NFL players kneeling reflects indoctrination by social justice warriors if you like. You can dismiss the sentiment wherein young voters overwhelmingly say they want more women running for office as mere political correctness. But these are real things that are happening.

The conservative movement doesn’t need to become socially liberal on every issue. But we should want more Republican Mia Loves and fewer Republicans who mock Mia Love for losing her seat.

Because the future of the party is Mia Love, not Steve King.

The one big policy debate issue the Pew survey looks at is climate change. And interestingly enough, this presents an opportunity for conservatives.

Sure, it’s fun to make fun of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for saying the world is going to end in 12 years and point out that AKSHUALLY, the glaciers haven’t melted YET. But the fact is that, yes, coral reefs are dying (sometimes for natural reasons and sometimes for man-made reasons), polar ice is melting, and the fish ain’t jumping. Conservatives can keep making jokes about Al Gore’s private-jet trips or they can recognize that there’s a market for new ideas and innovations and seize on that opportunity.

Which is what they should do, and soon. Because millennials and Generation Z overwhelmingly see government as a solution to society’s problems. It doesn’t matter that government intervention on climate change has thus far has amounted to tax dollars flowing to a billionaire to build fancy cars for rich people, to fund emerging technologies in bird-killing, and a slew of bankruptcies. More broadly, it doesn’t matter whether Obamacare sucks or entitlements are bankrupting the country or how ridiculous it is that the federal government is any way involved in approving beer recipes and brewery equipment purchases.

From a policy perspective, conservatism is on a lonely walk in the wilderness right now. But that creates an opportunity to emerge with a more modern, reformed conservatism—one that rejects both corporate imperatives and blood-and-soil nationalism. One that focuses on the importance of freedom and individual liberty, two things that are limited by government.

But if conservatives fail to offer ideas or solutions for the problems that voters care about, government is exactly where those voters will turn.

Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore was the managing editor of The Bulwark.