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To Win Over Millennials, Conservatives Must Fight Income Inequality

Because they have solutions for health care costs and high rents that can really work.
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As Democratic hopefuls like Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris announce their candidacies for president, prediction site FiveThirtyEight recently listed Millennials as one of the five key constituencies a successful Democratic candidate must court in order to win the nomination.

Millennials’ importance in the presidential primary reflects the fact that young people have become a core Democratic constituency over the past few years. In the 2018 midterm elections, 18-to-29-year-olds rose as a share of the electorate. These voters supported House Democrats by a 35-point margin—the largest among that demographic in several decades. Furthermore, high youth turnout swung close Senate races in Montana and Nevada.

So it’s clear that as Millennials get older and vote at higher rates, they’ll become more of a problem for the Republican Party. The GOP needs to do something to win them over.

So what do young voters want? Conservatives might prefer to dismiss those who largely favored income inequality crusader Bernie Sanders. Instead, they should appeal to them by addressing their concerns over rising economic disparities. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is particularly popular among Millennials, said that her successful campaign was all about “health care, education, housing, and justice.” The GOP needs to come up with its own solutions to those problems, rather than just shooting down the socialists’ proposals.

That doesn’t mean abandoning free markets: if anything, it means unleashing them to solve everyday issues.

For instance, Millennials largely prefer living in cities, yet skyrocketing housing prices have made that financially difficult. This has driven economic inequality, as increasing home values benefit well-off homeowners at the expense of low-income people, who spend larger shares of their income on rent. The blame for this lies at the feet of the same progressive politicians young people often support.

Republicans could solve this crisis—and appeal to Millennials—by attacking the root of the problem: onerous local zoning restrictions, imposed by predominantly progressive governments. Unnecessary regulations limiting building heights and land use drastically limit the supply of housing by preventing new construction. When an ever-increasing number of people want to purchase a limited amount of housing in the city, prices are inevitably sent soaring. Current homeowners back these regulations primarily to increase their own home values. In the end, Millennials lose out, paying higher rents and struggling to purchase their own homes.

The GOP should start fielding pro-zoning reform candidates in local elections, because right now, it often doesn’t even attempt to compete in cities. But conservatives can also advance meaningful zoning reform from within the federal government. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has a smart proposal to reform existing, inefficient federal grants by tying them to upzoning—basically requiring cities to allow new housing before receiving federal dollars. This idea has bipartisan support, as Senator Elizabeth Warren included a similar provision in her own housing bill. If conservatives were to make these solutions a part of the Republican brand, Millennials might take a second look at the GOP.

Younger generations are also concerned with the cost of college. The GOP should campaign on a fiscally conservative approach to cutting higher education costs. College tuition has risen almost 200 percent over the past two decades, and the federal loan subsidies Democrats favor have been largely ineffective, further inflating prices rather than benefitting disadvantaged students. The failure of government action offers an opportunity for conservatives to step in.

Purdue University under the leadership of Mitch Daniels is an example Republicans should champion. Since becoming university president six years ago, the former Republican governor has frozen tuition rates and the student body’s total loan debt has fallen by 30 percent. Daniels has shown how to make higher education more affordable: streamlining the college experience by offering a path to graduate in three years, reducing administrative spending, and expanding technical education.

Young people trust Democrats over Republicans by 32 points when it comes to health care, so conservatives must espouse a positive message on this subject, too. When it comes to health care solutions, the GOP needs to do more than attack single-payer and fail to repeal Obamacare. Curbing the high cost of health care is key to reducing income inequality and increasing wages. Rising health care costs have canceled out the real value of wage increases and disproportionately impacted middle- and lower-income workers.

Conservatives can appeal to young people by advocating for incremental reforms to make health care more affordable. There are numerous options on the table, but there is one in particular that should be at the top of the GOP’s agenda: increasing price transparency.

As many scholars have noted, American health care is not a free market system, but a complex array of government programs, private insurance companies, regulations, and tax benefits. Free markets rely on easily available prices, but right now large hospitals and insurance companies often obscure procedure pricing, leading to dramatic variation in price for the same procedure with the same quality. Increased price transparency has been effective when applied: areas of health care in which patients can access this information have become much cheaper and better over the past few decades.

By focusing on issues like lowering the costs of health care, housing, and education, the conservative movement can guarantee itself a future. The GOP has a real shot at winning over Millennials; instead they’ve largely chalked them up as a lost cause. This is a mistake: the next generation, like everyone else, is just looking for practical ways to fix the problems they face in everyday life. Conservative solutions can help make their lives better and can offer the GOP a lifeline with the next generation of voters.

Alex Muresianu is a writer for Young Voices and a student at Tufts University. His writing has been featured in The American Conservative, the Washington Examiner, and The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter @ahardtospell.