Lisa Posthumus Lyons’s words at CPAC 2013 ring truer than ever regarding America’s young people. No longer can prior generations make decisions for the youth; no longer can young people sit on the sidelines as our futures are decided for us. Now is our time to stand up and become the leaders that America desperately needs. While visiting Washington, D.C. in March I had the opportunity to speak with dozens of people– CPAC 2013 attendees, speakers, and even members of Congress– about youth outreach and what they feel are the best ways to market conservatism to the next generation. Answers varied, but the common theme was this: Young people should be listened to and respected, and youth should be reached out to in ways that most appeal to them. While conservative youth certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers when it comes to fixing the crucial issues facing this country, we need the youthful voices of America’s young people in order to be truly successful.
Republicans have much catching up to do when it comes to youth outreach. Most young people buy the Democrats’ tales hook, line and sinker, leaving us with ground to make up on college campuses and beyond. While reaching out to college students on their campus is a critical piece of the puzzle that is being ignored, this is meant to share a few specific ideas regarding marketing.
While doing research for this article I visited both the Republican and Democratic National Committees’ websites. On Democrats.org, I found an entire page dedicated to “Young Americans” and the impact we play in accomplishing policy and ideological goals put forward by liberals. The page lists recent updates concerning young people, milestone achievements that affect us, ways we can get involved, and more. Naturally, after seeing such bold outreach by Democrats seeking to win over my peers, I headed over to the Republican National Committee’s website, hopeful that I would find something similar.
I didn’t. I found nothing.
Clicking on the “Coalition Support” button, I saw links to three other pages: Black Republicans, GOP Hispanics, and RNC Women. No young Americans page. Not even an effort to engage and highlight issues that directly affect my generation.
This is a problem, guys. When our party on the national level is failing to even acknowledge the existence of an entire generation, what happens to the movement once the current generation retires and looks for someone to whom they can pass the torch? Part of that torch should have already been passed; young people should have a solid voice in both the Republican Party and the grassroots conservative movement. While we are becoming more recognized in the latter, the former has apparently yet to realize the vital impact of teenagers on the party as a whole.
At my first CPAC in March, I was eager to see what, if anything, would be aimed specifically at young people. While I found thousands of other young activists– 52% of those who voted in the CPAC 2013 straw poll were between the ages of 18-25– I was somewhat disappointed in the program itself. Hardly any young conservatives were given the chance to represent themselves at the podium and address the audience. We were used as emcees, invocation-givers, runners, the like– but rarely were we given the chance to represent ourselves; prior generations were telling the audience about young people, the issues we care about, and how to reach us. Maybe I’m crazy, but I would think that a teenager would have a better idea than a 30-something about how to reach out to teenagers!
In no way am I suggesting that young people know everything about youth outreach. There needs to be a balance between young opinions and opinions from generations before us. Collaborating on this is one of the most crucial steps to being successful again. CPAC gave the “older” folks the chance to share their opinions on this issue– but allowing young people to also share opinions would have made the discussion invaluable. Public school teacher Leah had this to say:
CPAC has to understand that the way to reach youth isn’t policy. It’s culture. Having a panel of young elected officials is a nice gesture, and I suppose somewhat interesting, but you’re not going to engage large numbers of young people that way. It’s done through culture – music, video games, TV, and fashion. It’s not done through “conservative” music, TV, etc., it’s done through QUALITY music, TV, video games, and fashion. Quality comes first, then the message. Your message doesn’t mean diddly-squat if the quality of the product is poor. The only people I know actively doing this are the people at Misfit Politics. That’s why I’m so excited to be a part of what they’re doing – Misfit Politics understands young people and knows how to market conservatism to them.
The issue Republicans have when it comes to young people has nothing to do with our message and everything to do with our marketing. Below are 3 ideas I believe can help the GOP effectively win over young people.
1) Portraying fiscally conservative values in a way that young people can relate to is simple yet extremely effective. Just change the wording; when telling the dangers of taxing the wealthy and successful more as their income increases, explain that liberal policies mean the more you earn, the more of your hard-earned money is taken by the government. Any cash-strapped college kid can relate to their money being taken away solely because they earned more than the next guy.
In a recent interview, Speaker John Boehner shared with me his ideas for the GOP’s marketing toward young people:
It [the national debt] hurts our economy, it hurts the job creation, and we’re putting our kids and grandkids under this incredible debt burden. Most of their taxes are going to go toward paying the debt, and paying the interest on the debt, as opposed to funding student loan programs, or clean water programs, or anything else.
I think we need to tell the story in terms that they understand. There’s nothing wrong with our principles as a party, but we don’t do a very good job of putting them in words that average people understand. Think of your parents spending an extra, on average, $15,000 per year, every year, and when you get out of college, you get to pay their bill. That’s exactly what it is.
Both Speaker Boehner and Utah Senator Mike Lee agree that the national debt is the most pressing issue facing this country, making it the top issue young people should be concerned about. Asked why young people should care about the debt, Senator Lee told me this:
It’s a problem in the sense that we’re going to have to repay that, but that it will have to be repaid by people like you and others in your generation; people who have not been old enough to vote for or against the people who are doing those things. Yet you’ll still be responsible for shouldering a significant portion of that debt.
How can Republicans debunk the claims by liberals that government should care and provide for you? Here are more of Senator Lee’s thoughts:
The government can’t create a strong civil society; it can destroy it, and it will destroy it if it gets too big and overbearing. But when government stays within its boundaries it can allow that civil society to flourish… The answer to all of our problems can’t be a bigger, stronger national government. As government grows it does so generally at the expense of our own liberty. The bigger it gets, the less free we become.
Show young people a reason why they should care about pressing issues rather than just the “equality” and “free stuff” pushed at them by Lefties.
2) Keep the marketing positive and youth will respond in a more positive way. Show them why the GOP has policies that will properly address those pressing issues. Young people respond better to positive messages than they do to negative ones; constantly, it seems, the GOP attempts to show the negatives of liberalism but fails to counter them with the positives of conservatism. In an article published last November, here’s a snippet of what I said concerning positive youth outreach:
Look at these two phrases:
“The President has done a terrible job in the last four years. Everything he has done to try to help the middle-class has failed. My plan will get people back to work, make us energy independent, and increase America’s standing in the world.”
“America is the land of opportunity. I want you to achieve your dreams however you see fit, and I want you to do so without interference from an overbearing federal government. I’ve been hugely successful because of a free-market economy and capitalistic principles, and the same is possible for you if we remove government from the economy and from various aspects of your life.”
Look at the wording of both phrases. The root of both messages is the same— yet which sounds more appealing to young people? The Republican Party needs to take on a more optimistic tone regarding the policies and ideas we represent rather than solely showing a negative attitude towards the opinions of the other side. If we are optimistic about our own ideas, we won’t have to worry about being so negative about the other side’s.
It’s obvious that young people gravitate toward more optimistic messages— “hope and change” paraded them out to the polls in numbers we had never seen before. The GOP needs to excite young people about conservatism rather than simply attempt to disgust them with liberalism. There has to be a balance of presenting our ideas and attacking the opposite. The Left attacks conservatism viciously because they can get away with it. The GOP can’t get away with it; we have to be the upbeat, positive, this-is-how-conservatism-benefits-you party if we want to win young people over. This isn’t pandering— this is reaching out to young people in the ways they’ll respond to best. We can’t afford to continue letting the Left to buy young people’s votes with false promises and hypocritical hope.
3) It’s time to let young conservatives sit at the “grown-up table” of the conservative movement. Treat young people like valuable voices at the table, not just the annoying little cousin who craves attention. Making young people feel unwanted and unappreciated is what has made them gravitate toward the party who, despite consistently working to destroy their future under the guise of “helping” them, makes them feel accepted and sought-after. It takes a combination of older, wiser voices and younger, more energetic voices to help the party and the movement operate at its full potential. Older folks can’t know exactly what younger generations are interested in and attracted by; young people can’t know exactly what’s been tried before and has or hasn’t worked. Activist Ken Gardner said it like this:
As always, the challenge is persuading young voters of varying life experience, maturity, knowledge, understanding, or wisdom how conservative, limited government principles will make their own personal lives better. And I think part of THAT process is treating young people like mature, responsible grownups rather than 20-something adolescents.
The GOP can’t survive without young people. Any and all victories accomplished today will be undone and forgotten as soon as the current generation moves on. Without young people to carry on the message, everything done today is useless. Ignoring us simply won’t work– we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines anymore and the party can’t afford to let us do so. Engage and welcome the young, fresh, energetic voices in the conservative movement and utilize the tremendous help we can be to future successes.