I’m about to break the cardinal rule of winning the youth vote, which is to stop talking about the youth vote. Forgive me, politicos, but your target demographic can’t take it anymore. Free us of your gifs, your hip celebrity friends, and your dancing (but never your accidental memes), and stop thinking that if you just learn how to hashtag gracefully, millennials will turn out to vote for you in droves. Instead, hear us out.
A small but enthusiastic group of Republican party activists recently did just that. At a CPAC breakout session called “Engaging Millennials,” conference attendees took the time to listen to a series of young conservatives give their perspective on what made them feel welcome in the movement—and what deters their friends. Their advice rang true to my own experience as a young person interested in, but often somewhat alienated from, conservative circles. For the sake of a more substantial (or at least less awkward) campaign season, I’d like to start another discussion of this type, and offer this youth guide to getting the youth vote.
As a starting point, let’s return to my cardinal rule: if you want the youth, or “millennials,” to start voting for you, stop thinking of them as a bloc and start thinking of them as individuals. Here’s what works on a personal level—and what will get me interested in hearing what you have to offer.
1. Prioritize principles over party, ideas over ideology.
Alright, I’m a little biased in this formulation, which is TAC’s in-house motto. But it’s also the sentiment I heard from several of the CPAC session’s speakers, including the Bill of Rights Institute’s Anthony Rodriguez. “My ideas matter more than a party,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how I think it should be. That’s how I think a lot of millennials feel. No party owns us. And no party should own us. We are our own people. We have our own ideas. I feel like our generation is independent that way.”
Rodriguez is right—millennials are independent, if nothing else. In fact, half of all millennials consider themselves independents, and only about a third of them see a “great deal” of difference between the two major parties. As such, activists seeking to reach out to millennials shouldn’t expect party loyalty—especially since, as panel organizer Whitney Neal of the Bill of Rights Institute put it, millennials are not “institutionally minded.” Politicians need to really work for their votes.
A lot of that requires starting over, in a sense. Most millennials came of age under the Obama administration and have a living memory of what liberalism means, and especially what it means to voters. Conservatism does not enjoy the same reputation. (I came to work at TAC in no small part as an educational enterprise!) Another speaker at the event, Zuri Davis, is an editorial assistant at Rare Politics who came to conservatism through good-faith argument and conversation with student groups. That never would have happened without a willingness to engage Davis personally and explain how conservative principles could work for her—not because they are conservative, but because they are good. “Politics have to come second,” Davis said. “You have to identify feelings and similarities between people, and from there say…here’s a conservative solution.”
There is nothing more alienating and off-putting to me, as a young voter, than watching candidates squabble about their conservative bona fides. Davis said that millennials “don’t really identify with ideology,” and that’s certainly true for me—I like to reserve the right to contradict myself as I observe, learn, and gain more experience. More importantly, I want to be sold on how ideas will work for me, not on a thoroughly unmotivating ideological tribalism.
In short, the conservative movement has to actually consider young people as real voters and as activists. Without that foundation of trust and equality, we have no reason to care.
2. Put us to work.
Pay your interns. Bernie Sanders does. The American Conservative does. In a not unrelated phenomenon, young people tend to really like Bernie Sanders and TAC. Of course, that affiliation is not just about payment—but I think in this case payment is a good signifier for taking people seriously. It is a statement that young people’s contributions are valued.
Another speaker, Lawrence Jones of The Blaze, recounted his experience as a recruit out of high school for the Obama campaign. He was motivated because on the left, “they want you to be involved. They don’t tell you ‘wait your turn,’ or, ‘um, let’s let the young folks go to the back of the room and have their little group, and we’ll work on the big issues.’” Millennials are “action-oriented,” Jones said. It’s hard to care about something you have no experience of.
3. Be a person, not a platform.
“What I have found is that the best way to connect is through personal stories,” Iris Somberg of the PR firm Counterpoint Strategies said. The speakers revisited this theme frequently throughout the session, much to my relief. People vote for people they like, know, and believe, not just people who make a bullet point list of ideas they agree with. Especially when we feel that the major parties are not substantially ideologically different, that personal connection is what makes all the difference. I don’t have the time and energy to sort out the nuanced distinctions between each plan and platform—but I can recognize common ground when it comes to values.
For instance, political strategists are preparing for the decreasing religiosity in younger generations, but that shift does not necessarily have to be an obstacle in a movement dominated by religious Christians at present. “You should address millennials on their particular issues, but you should never back down on what you personally think,” Somberg said. “Say why you’re religious. Say why you believe in that, say ‘I understand that’s not where you come from, but this is my personal story.’ … Don’t be one of the politicians who we have all heard many times say different things to different groups of people and end up just seeming like frauds.” The question of religion illustrates that need for heartfelt connection over platform orthodoxy. I will vote for a candidate that doesn’t share my faith, or that doesn’t have a faith at all—but not for someone who fakes or evades it.
This personal, values-based connection is part of why Bernie Sanders is so popular among millennials, even millennials who don’t identify with socialism or particularly understand its history. Whitney Neal got at this phenomenon in the question-and-answer session, when she addressed the Sanders campaign’s success on the issue of student-loan debt.
When you talk about debt, and you say, you know, that we’re 19 trillion dollars in debt, that doesn’t connect to the individual who is struggling with student loan debt. And Bernie and Hillary and the left speak directly to it, and they don’t condescend when they do it. So again, it’s not even necessarily that all of these people are flocking to Bernie saying, yes, the government should pay for my college, it’s that they directly address an issue facing those individual people. And they’re concerned about it. They’re at home and they’re like, well, I don’t have a car but I’ve got a $700 a month student loan payment to make, and Bernie Sanders says ‘I see it, I feel your pain, I’m going to help work with you on it.’ When’s the last time one of the GOP candidates on stage gave a heartfelt response to that question or at a rally? And when they do talk about it, it’s kind of like ‘Well, it’s their own fault.’ … Hundreds of thousands of people are in this situation and they don’t want to be talked down to. So I think from there it’s just address it as a human being. Recognize it as a human issue. … I mean, I don’t think they’re going to Bernie just because they’ve read his tax plan. They’re going because they felt welcome and they felt part of something and there was that one thing he talked about that’s impacting their individual life. And that’s why I think he’s resonating with a lot of people.
Neal is right to emphasize the importance of being genuine. I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders on almost anything, but I trust and believe him. Ultimately, those latter sentiments are a lot more politically potent. The ballot is largely a list of names, after all. People come out to vote for people, not platforms. Millennials are no different.
4. Stop trying to be hip with the youths.
My eyes glaze over every time a candidate tells me to go to his or her website, to google this, to check out that hashtag. First of all, anyone politically engaged enough to be listening to a candidate in the first place already knows where to go to learn more. In addition, it feels so impersonal, reducing our conversation to robotic information transmission. When a candidate chooses to use that time to talk about issues, rather than tell me where to find them, it says to me that my time is valuable.
But mostly, it is very, very hilarious. Guys, we know you don’t run your own Twitter accounts, and we are laughing about it. “Be authentic, don’t be fake,” Whitney Neal urged the activists in the room. Don’t show off how good you are at apps and how you like rap music. We see you. “We’re going to roll our eyes at you.”
Making the millennial vote all about technology and social media is silly because that digital-native adeptness can’t be faked. It also leaves out millennials who engage with politics different ways, as Kirk Higgins, also of the Bill of Rights Institute, pointed out. “As a millennial, I don’t use much technology, so it’s probably hard to find me on Facebook. I’ve never sent a tweet.”
More importantly, it is an incredibly reductive and condescending attitude to take toward young voters. “It’s great to use social media as a tool to keep in touch with people, but it is not the only way,” Somberg explained. “Unless you do the face-to-face, sharing your personal story, actually connecting with other people, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
5. Get identity politics right.
Anthony Rodriguez got the biggest cheers of the event for what should be an intuitive, straightforward point. “Just because my last name is Rodriguez doesn’t mean the only issue I care about is immigration! … Get off that message! There are so many other ways! Why don’t you ask me what I believe in, what my issues are?” For instance, he added, “I think our generation cares a lot more about social entrepreneurship.”
But that doesn’t mean conservatives can afford to act like the issues they consign to “identity politics” aren’t real, and aren’t something that conservatism has an answer to. In fact, issues that are so often reduced to a demographic pander are actually where conservatives have the most opportunity to make headway with voters who want to hear genuine concern and plans for action. Lawrence Jones recalled an episode of The Blaze TV when “we were able to get Black Lives Matter protesters on the show and have a dialogue on real criminal justice reform,” which is a perfect example of engaging the ideas at stake rather than kneejerk ideological withdrawal. Issues like criminal justice reform represent an untapped potential on the right, where ignorance, naivete, or outright racial animosity often get in the way of productive conversation. Dialogues like the one Jones highlighted rely on good faith, which is an increasingly rare commodity in the realm of identity politics. But it’s not outright extinct.
This openness to a complex understanding of identity (whether racial, ethnic, or gender, among others) is important to millennials, and it’s a conversation that liberals dominate because they are willing to have it. If conservatives think their principles will hold up to scrutiny when they are applied in all their specificity, then I want them to make that case—the case that convinced Rodriguez and Jones. I want to be engaged as a woman without restricting the conversation to abortion, to hear about economic opportunity for women, how we have reached parity on the scale of small businesses, how the wage gap is about corporate big-business oligarchy as much as it is about sexism.
I can only speak for my own single millennial vote, but it matters to me that politics accounts for my desire to be seen and heard for who I am.
6. Have a positive vision.
Whitney Neal’s closing remarks said it all:
We also don’t need to keep being told that things are bad. We get it. We understand that it’s rough, and we also know that it’s not our fault, and that we’re the ones who are here to pick up the pieces. What we want to know is how to fix it. … When your vision is negative, when your vision is ‘these are all the things that we are against, so don’t do this, this is all bad,’ people don’t want to emotionally invest in and engage with that. In our generation, we’re more excited by positive visions. There are so many positive things about freedom and opportunity and liberty…but we always tell the negative story. And we need to tell the positive story about freedom and opportunity.
There’s a reason young people voted for Barack Obama, and Ron and Rand Paul, and that they are turning out now for Bernie Sanders. This playbook works, and it would be a relief to see more of it on the right.
Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.