Author: Ana Marie Cox
Conservatives are stuck in a perpetual outrage loop. The reappearance of Todd Akin, the horror-movie villain immortality of Sarah Palin, theunseemly celebration of the Hobby Lobby decision – these all speak to a chorus of “la-la-la-can’t-hear-you” loud enough to drown out the voice of an entire generation. Late last week, the Reason Foundation released the results of a poll about that generation, the millennials; its signature finding was the confirmation of a mass abandonment of social conservatism and the GOP. This comes at a time when the conservative movement is increasingly synonymous with mean-spirited, prank-like and combativeactivism and self-important grand gestures. The millennial generation has repeatedly defined itself as the most socially tolerant of the modern era, but one thing it really can’t stand is drama.
Republicans were already destined for piecemeal decimation due to the declining numbers of their core constituency. But they don’t just have a demographic problem anymore; they have stylistic one. The conservative strategy of outrage upon outrage upon outrage bumps up against the policy preferences and the attitudes of millennials in perfect discord.
We all can recognize the right’s tendency to respond to backlash with more “lash” (Akin didn’t disappear, he doubled down on “legitimate rape”), but it seems to have gained speed with the age of social media and candidate tracking. The Tea Party’s resistance to the leavening effect of establishment mores and political professionals has been a particularly effective accelerant. Palin’s ability to put anything on the internet without any intermediary has rendered her as reckless as any tween with a SnapChat account. Akin’s whiny denouncement of Washington insiders is likely to make him more credible with a certain kind of base voter. The midterms are, as we speak, producing another round of Fox News celebrities, whether or not they win their races: the Eric Cantor-vanquishing David Brat, Mississippi’s Chris McDaniel and the hog-castrating mini-Palin, Jodi Ernst of Iowa.
The fire-with-fire attitude of hardline conservatives has its roots in the petulant cultural defensiveness adopted by the GOP – especially the Christian right – during the culture wars of the 90s. Their siege mentality bred an attitude toward liberals that saw every instance of social liberalization as proof of their own apocalyptic predictions and conspiracy theories. Gay marriage will lead to acceptance of beastiality and pedophilia. “Socialized medicine” will lead to the euthanizing Grandma. Access to birth control will lead to orgies in the streets.
Then came Obama’s election, the Zapruder tape for the right’s tin-foil hat haberdashers – a moment in history that both explained and exacerbated America’s supposed decline. Dinesh D’Souza, the Oliver Stone of the Tea Party, has now made two movies about the meaning of Obama’s presidency. The first, 2016: Obama’s America, garnered an astounding $33m at the box office, and his lawyers blamed disappointing returns from this summer’s America on a Google conspiracy to confuse moviegoers about its showtimes. (Of course.)
The GOP has long staked a claim on The Disappearing Angry White Man, but they have apparently ever-narrowing odds of getting a bite at millennials, who appear to be more like The Somewhat Concerned Multicultural Moderate. This generation is racially diverse, pro-pot, pro-marriage equality and pro-online gambling. They are troubled by the deficit but believe in the social safety net: 74% of millennials, according to Reason, want the government to guarantee food and housing to all Americans. A Pew survey found that 59% of Americans under 30 say the government should do more to solve problems, while majorities in all other age groups thought it should do less.
The Rupe-Reason poll teases out some of the thinking behind the surge of young people abandoning the GOP, and finds a generation that is less apt to take to the streets, Occupy-style, than to throw a great block party: lots of drugs, poker and gays! Millennials don’t want to change things, apparently – they want everyone to get along. The report observes “[m]any specifically identified LGBTQ rights as their primary reason for being liberal”; and “[o]ften, they decided they were liberals because they really didn’t like conservatives.”
But liberals can’t be complacent about their demographic advantage. Their challenge is to resist the impulse to copycat the hysteria that has worked so well for the right historically. “No drama Obama” was the millennials’ spirit animal – his popularity has sunk with the economy, but also with the administration’s escalating rhetoric. Today, under-30 voters show a distinct preference for Hillary Clinton (39% according to Reason,53% according to the Wall Street Journal), and no wonder: she’s as bloodless as Bill was lusty, as analytical as Bill was emotional. The professorial Elizabeth Warren is the logical (very logical) backup.
Right now, Democrats benefit from both the form and content of conservative message: this next generation is not just inclusive, but conflict-adverse. Millennials cringe at the old-man-yelling-at-gay-clouds spectacle of the Tea Party. Perhaps this comes from living in such close proximity of their parents for so long. If this generation does have a political philosophy, it’s this: “First, do no harm.” If it has a guiding moral principle, it’s simpler: “Don’t be embarrassing.”