If you were among the roughly 97 percent of Americans who didn’t tune into one of the Sunday shows this weekend, you might not realize that the only two issues currently worthy of sustained national debate are the stupidity of some IRS bureaucrats and the overzealousness of some certain federal prosecutors during an investigation of leaks that may have jeopardized U.S. assets within al Qaeda and North Korea.
Perhaps you are old-fashioned and have additional concerns that are a bit more naive, even trite. For example, what is the political system doing to help businesses create jobs or lift incomes? What are both parties proposing to help people afford a decent education, buy a home, or save for retirement? Who, if anyone, is offering a compelling agenda that speaks to the aspirations of younger generations?
How cute. And yet, while one Sunday show was asking panelists to analyze painfully awkward clips of IRS employees line dancing (please stop that), the College Republican National Committee was busy launching a sober, thoughtful, well-researched conversation about the future of a major political party that is now viewed favorably by only 33 percent of Americans under 30.
As a Democrat who turned 32 on Sunday, which just barely qualifies me as a millennial (1980–2000), I find this conversation hugely important. Young voters, long dismissed by pundits as too cynical and disengaged to vote, famously did so in record numbers in the 2008 election. In 2012, when we were supposed to stay home and sulk because President Obama didn’t take us from near depression to full employment in 45 months (Politico: “Young Voters Sitting Out This November?”), we surpassed our previous turnout, handing the president his larger-than-expected margin of victory over Mitt Romney.
With the help of the Republican Party’s leading millennial pollster, Kristen Soltis Anderson, the College Republicans set out to discover how to win back some of these Americans in future elections. And what they found is younger voters simply don’t want the current brand of crazy that so much of the national Republican Party has been selling with such fervor.
One of the headlines from the study were the words that up-for-grabs young voters used to describe today’s GOP: “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” And the party clearly is out of step with millennials on many of the social issues that receive so much media attention. The College Republican survey found that only 30 percent of young voters believe marriage should be legally defined as only between a man and a woman. Even strongly anti-abortion-rights voters said they were disturbed when Republican candidates talked about defunding Planned Parenthood and “redefining rape.” Young people were more likely to value environmental protection than older voters and most frequently listed a path to citizenship as the best way to reform immigration.
But to me, the most significant finding in the survey was the wholesale rejection of the national Republican Party’s economic agenda. For four years, Republican candidates have been telling Americans that Obama’s policies are responsible for nearly all their financial ills. Yet a majority of young people believe Republican policies played either a major role or the biggest role in bringing about the Great Recession, giving Democrats a 16-point advantage over Republicans in handling jobs and the economy.
After decades of pushing bigger and bigger tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations, Republicans must face the fact that only 3 percent of the next generation wants more tax cuts for the wealthy. Three percent. In a survey taken after the January budget deal that raised taxes on the richest Americans, a majority of young voters still believe those taxes should be even higher.
Despite a push for lower corporate tax rates that has come from both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, only about a third of young people think such a policy would help create jobs or improve their lives. Despite a sustained Republican jihad against even the most basic regulations on Wall Street banks or insurance companies or corporate polluters, only 40 percent of young people believe they’d be better off if business regulations were reduced.
And after the 37th failed vote by House Republicans to repeal Obamacare—a perverse obsession that seems to defy both substantive and political logic—only 37 percent of young Americans believe they’d be better off if the law no longer existed. Today Obamacare is favored by 9 points among young people, 44 percent of whom say “basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide.”
It’s clear that young Americans are concerned about unnecessary government spending and unsustainable debt. But unlike much of Washington, we have not been afflicted with Simpson-Bowles fetish syndrome. In the College Republican survey, young people want more spending on education, not the massive cuts proposed by nearly every Republican candidate and congressman. We worry about the rising cost of entitlements, but not nearly as much as we worry about the rising cost of college and student-loan debt. In the survey, young people clearly recognize that the president is working to address these challenges while Republicans have been indifferent at best.
Soltis Anderson ends the College Republican report with an admonition: “Economic growth and opportunity policies cannot just be about tax cuts and spending cuts.” Among the next generation of American voters, she has found ample evidence to support that claim. And yet, if a Republican candidate for president said such a thing, he or she would be driven from the race by a horde of torchbearing, pitchfork-waving Tea Partiers.
The truth is, the Republican Party today doesn’t have an economic agenda that goes beyond tax cuts and spending cuts. It can spend the next few years hiding behind investigative witch hunts and over-the-top rhetoric that most Americans don’t take seriously. It can hide behind another 37 failed repeal votes of a health-care program that’s already working as it’s supposed to in states like California. But the party cannot keep hiding from an entire generation of voters who expect both sides to address their aspirations with smart, sensible, mainstream solutions.
As millennials, we’re not stupid, cynical, or naive. We’re educated, we’re engaged, and we’re ready for a serious conversation about our future.