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Searching For a Candidate That Doesn’t Exist

As the media begins to buzz with anticipation over the first televised Republican presidential debate—taking place this evening on Fox News—it’s difficult not to feel disillusioned before it even begins.

Because, along with (I assume) at least a few other millennials out there, I don’t think there’s a single candidate I want to vote for. And the shouting matches that are sure to build over the next several months are only going to further entrench that viewpoint.

The problem is that the politics of the millennial generation is more diverse, issue-based, and flexible than those of our forbears. Few of us are fanatically partisan. Many of the conservative young people I talk to are passionate about their pro-life beliefs, but lean libertarian on issues such as foreign policy and same-sex marriage: they want to be less involved in conflicts overseas, are disillusioned by hawkish rhetoric, and open to diplomatic measures such as the Iran deal. Be they religious or no, many believe that the government should not ban gay marriage. They have a greater appreciation for compassion and nuance in the illegal immigration debate, and are looking for realistic, positive solutions to the problem. They’re very interested in fighting poverty and social injustices, and are more likely to have an opinion on police brutality or inner city violence. Many are skeptical of the anti-environmentalist leanings of the Republican Party, and want to see a candidate who prizes sustainability and ecological restoration. They don’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and read Fox News—some read Wendell Berry, peruse the Daily Beast’s website, watch Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

But they will get none of this nuance from the Republican candidates who mount the stage this evening. Because the politicians on stage aren’t speaking to conservative-leaning millennials or their interests: they’re using the same tired rhetoric and debate tactics they’ve used for ages, rehashing the same GOP establishment statements and talking points. Though some of the politicians on stage were hoped—and expected—to be different, they’ve made their share of mistakes, and have slowly slipped from the limelight.

Republicans aren’t necessarily ignoring young voters—it’s just that they’re trying to reach them with technology, with fancy websites and Snapchat accounts. And as much as I appreciate a well-designed website, it’s rather offensive to see politicians thinking they can win me over with aesthetics and gadgetry, rather than with meaningful platforms and ideas for reform.

And they have a great chance—if they would only embrace it—to actually win over young voters. Though they’re the generation most likely to self-identify as liberal, many millennials were disillusioned by Obama’s presidency, and appear open to change.

Unfortunately, change isn’t what they’re going to get—at least not with politicians like Donald Trump (whose supporters are “more likely to be male, white, older, with less education“) dominating the political discourse. Newer candidates like Marco Rubio are sticking to the party line on issues like foreign policy (as A.J. Delgado put it in our latest magazine, “If you’re clamoring for the … policy of the George W. Bush years, Rubio’s your guy. If you want something pensive, positive, and fresh—he probably isn’t.”) The libertarian-leaning Rand Paul has adopted a caution that has left him well behind other contenders, and unlikely to catch up. Scott Walker, while lacking in any obviously detrimental political baggage, has also never commented deeply on schismatic social and foreign policy issues—thus making him likely “to simply adopt whatever the GOP consensus is on the topic,” as Sean Scallon pointed out in May.

Perhaps new hope will come to light after tonight’s debate. Perhaps a candidate will surprise us with a fresh or thoughtful take on a typical partisan issue. But unfortunately, that’s not usually how televised debates work. Indeed, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, it seems harder than ever to foster a really deep and meaningful discourse.

But we can keep learning about the candidates and their politics, educating ourselves on the lesser of the evils they represent. We can learn more about the Democrats running for president and the political views they represent—some, like Jim Webb, are far more interesting alternatives for the independent-leaning conservative than Donald Trump or Rick Santorum.

And perhaps, if the Republicans take another hard hit in 2016 amongst millennial voters, they’ll finally learn what they should have learned in 2012: you can’t win over young Americans with fancy websites, Twitter accounts, and hashtag campaigns. Unless you offer something meaningful, thoughtful reform, we’re going to look elsewhere.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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