September 30, 2020

Liberals and Conservatives: Beware the Class of 2001

Liberals and Conservatives: Beware the Class of 2001
by Michael Spencer

I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the future. It’s called the class of 2001, and my liberal friends, it looks grim for you. But before conservatives pour a drink and get ready for a rout, you might want to pay attention. Things are not entirely as wonderful as they may first appear. Today’s young people are not easily described, motivated or convinced. They present a huge challenge to every political party.

For the past several weeks, I have been facilitating research, presentations and discussions on topics of personal interest to my fifty-eight high school students. The topics have ranged from the ideological and religious, to the social and political. In addition, I’ve survived by first year as Student Government sponsor, which allowed me to see just how young people put politics to work on campus. As I’ve listened to hours of discussion and conversation by students from all over America and the world, I’ve drawn some conclusions that both sides of the political game may find interesting and daunting.

The young people walking across the graduation stage this year defy easy categories. They are very reluctant to label themselves anything, being post-modern enough to resist anything that confidently puts them in a group. I have to wonder where the “young” Democrats and Republicans on college campuses are coming from? I couldn’t get interest going in such a club if I gave away tickets to Disney. In fact, the cynicism about organized politics is so high that I have to wonder what politics will look like in ten years. If the attitudes of these students is accurate, the decline in voting participation seems to have just begun and we may be heading for the 35% range in national elections.`

What about the issues that define the political parties? Here liberals clearly have lost the game. Traditional liberal thinking and big government solutions are not popular with this crowd. The conservative message has strong influence and appeal among those who hold to some traditionally Democratic views on other issues. Name the liberal solution, and it’s held in low regard: higher taxes, more spending, more programs, government intervention, regulations and Federal accountability. Generally, these are losing causes today.

Yet, conservative solutions have not taken deep root among young people either. While students believe taxes are too high, and if you explain it, will quickly see how regulations stifle productivity, they are reluctant to cut the taxes of the wealthy, and even more reluctant to remove regulatory laws they believe contribute to public safety and the protection of the environment. The idea of compassion through an activist government is close to unquestioned orthodoxy in America and conservatives have not penetrated very far with the idea that privatization is better than government intervention. When my kids were participating in a “Future Problem Solvers” program, the ideas for solving any problem quickly ran to the same, stale government solutions that conservatives know make things worse every time they are tried: higher taxes, more laws, pressure to compel people to change behavior rather than ways to make incentives and personal rewards the engines of progress.

Environmentalism is a good example of how this generation is hard to define politically- and harder to enlist in the conservative cause. The class of 2001 knows what you are supposed to say about the environment. They were brought up with Earth Day, Captain Planet and the Discovery Channel. They will probably applaud the ads of the Sierra Club and consider themselves pro-environment. But are these young people willing to eliminate jobs, pay higher gas prices, drive smaller cars, forgo bike trails, give up their all terrain vehicles, and value the spotted owl over the communities that depend on logging? No way. The class of 2001 can sound like Democrats, but they are much more in President Bush’s column when it comes down to the environment or the American lifestyle.

The War on Drugs is an issue that separates the class of ’01 from conservatives. They’ve had years of D.A.R.E. and more anti-drug education than any generation in history, but they don’t like the war on drugs. Half of them use marijuana, and they won’t support a police state to enforce drug laws. They won’t pay for prisons full of drug users, and would prefer short-term mandatory treatment to lengthy and excessive punitive incarceration. While they are strongly for getting tough with dealers, they are also for decriminalization, medical use and no penalties for growing your own. The class of ’01 looks pretty Libertarian on this issue, and they will increasingly show less patience for politicians who want to focus on drugs as a major issue.

They are tolerant of homosexuality, even as they are more personally opposed to homosexuality than Hollywood would ever admit. They are for the death penalty, and all the current focus on wrongful imprisonments won’t change their mind. They are highly suspicious of welfare, though they want the government to subsidize education at every level. They want a strong military and they want a missile defense. They might seem to be more open to National Health Insurance, but ask those who want to be doctors what they think about Canadian Doctor’s salaries or the quality of socialist medical care. They do not want America to be pushed around by China or anyone else, but they are largely isolationist in their opinions on foreign policy. They want religion protected in public life, but don’t want any religious minority telling them what to do. They understand the culture is too violent and sexual but they want no censorship of what they can see or hear. They are pro-life, but don’t want abortion made impossible, or even very difficult. They like Jesse Ventura more than Bush or Gore.

What can we make of these young people? They are more libertarian and conservative than liberal, and I can’t see anything that will change that. In fact, age should make them more conservative. If Libertarians could find an appealing National leader and a place on the political stage, many would move to that position. They are cynical of politicians and savvy on media. They are well aware that they are no longer guaranteed a standard of living above their parents. They want the “stuff” that goes along with success in America, and they expect their government to care more about their economic security and personal freedoms than any platform, ideology or agenda. They want a safe world, but if it’s not safe, they want the problem taken care of swiftly and with overwhelming force.

Many of them will vote independent and gravitate towards candidates who are mavericks. John McCain has a future with this crowd, as does (seriously) Governor Ventura. They are unlikely to run for school board or write letters to the editor, but they are very likely to take note of who wants to let them keep most of their own paycheck. In my opinion, the liberal bent towards use of the government for good will never subvert this generation’s basic mistrust of politicians and political rhetoric. And they don’t want to pay for the Democrat’s paradise. They’ve lived through Clinton and they associate politicians with lying more than any other generation in our history.

They are not idealistic or particularly aware of what America is all about. They slept through much of what America is all about. Still, even though they’ve grown up hearing liberals trash America as racist and oppressive, they still have a vision of the goodness of America. When they do care enough to listen, they are solidly supportive of a moderately conservative agenda that is moderately Libertarian on social issues. While they are in no one’s pocket, they forebode dire times of liberalism and opportunity to conservatives.