How Republicans can court the selfie set.
The only thing less original than the selfie as a form of expression is the selfie as shorthand for a generation. So I was inclined to distrust “The Selfie Vote,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson’s look at how millennials are transforming American politics. I remember how annoying it was back in the 1990s when “slacker” became the obligatory reference to my generation. I bet millennials get a little tired of being reduced to “selfies,” too.
But as I began to read, I realized that the title is apt. Anderson has written a selfie in book form. She has taken various snapshots of her generation’s political leanings — in her early 30s, she is a millennial herself — and now hopes they’ll be shared and liked widely. Her main audience is the leadership of the Grand Old Party (with emphasis on “old”), which she thinks risks obsolescence unless it manages to attract younger voters.
“It’s no secret that the GOP has had a hard time winning over the millennial generation — the newest voters in the electorate — and that this has made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win elections,” Anderson writes. It’s not a new argument, but the author deserves credit for avoiding the easy route. While so many politicians and strategists seem to think simply slapping something up on social media or snagging a celebrity endorsement means you’re down with the kids, Anderson painstakingly examines the technology, consumer habits and personal values shaping millennial politics, looking for ways conservatives can adapt or reinforce their principles to appeal to this group.
Some of her proposals are small-bore; it’s not clear how successful Republicans will be with young voters even if they adopt the entirety of Anderson’s agenda. Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that they’ll have little chance if they ignore her recommendations altogether. “The media coverage of Republican struggles with young voters often focuses heavily on the obvious points of generational disagreement,” Anderson writes with optimism, “but I believe there is a far wider array of areas where young voters and conservative ideas overlap.”
One of these areas, she contends, is education. “Neither party has particularly stepped up as a champion of reform for K-12 or higher education,” Anderson notes. She sees a conservative opportunity with young people facing heavy college debts and in need of cheaper, higher-tech models of instruction. She calls for programs to make student loan repayment more manageable — pegging payments to income levels, like tax withholding — and urges Republicans to support and experiment with alternative teaching models, such as online courses aimed at technical fields and at developing “middle skills” in high-tech manufacturing, health care and other growing industries.
“We should be focused on giving people more choice and flexibility in how they build their skills,” she explains. “Championing technology as a way to create greater choice, greater cost savings, and better learning is an obvious step Republicans can take to help young people.”
Anderson also examines how millennials prefer to live: in dense, urban areas and closer to their neighbors; they’re less focused on big lawns and cars than on walkable communities, car sharing and public transportation. This is normally considered bad news for Republicans; citydwellers lean Democratic. But she points to efforts by conservatives to ally themselves with Uber against unions and overregulation of urban transportation as an example of how to win back urbanites. “Republicans can look to some of our nation’s cities to find plentiful examples of big government, union power, and overregulation gone terribly awry, where young residents are looking for choices, efficiency and technology to solve the problems they face.”
In Anderson’s telling, even diverse racial and ethnic communities — the same that formed such a key part of the Obama coalition — hold opportunities for Republicans. After all, winning the “youth vote” and winning the “Latino vote” are increasingly intertwined objectives. Though she thinks that GOP support for comprehensive immigration reform makes sense, she understands that such a move “is
not a magic spell for winning over young Hispanic voters.” These voters, like many others, care deeply about economic issues and equal opportunity, and those are the themes Republicans need to emphasize, she says.
In the effort to attract black voters, Anderson zeroes in on the vast disparities in enforcement, sentencing and incarceration in the criminal justice system. “One in twelve workingage African American men is in jail . . . [and] many of those who are in jail for nonviolent offenses might not be there if their skin was a different color.” Republicans are often reluctant to wade into these waters, Anderson admits, preferring to stick with tough-on-crime platforms. But she believes that the conservative case for justice reform is sound: “We can acknowledge that police have an incredibly difficult job, putting their lives on the line to protect us, and also say we need to find ways to prevent the next Eric Garner tragedy.”
In addition to reducing the expense that results from needlessly incarcerating so many people, justice reform is pro-family. Children with a parent in prison are cut off from all manner of economic and educational opportunities, she writes. “To be a political party that champions freedom, family and opportunity, it is essential to acknowledge where the government has thrown up roadblocks — roadblocks that particularly affect Americans from communities of color.”
These proposals, and others Anderson outlines in “The Selfie Vote,” feel like sensible ideas that many politicians, not just Republicans, can get behind. But what of issues where the party appears fundamentally out of step with the younger generation, not to mention most of the country? For many millennials, Anderson notes, opposition to same-sex marriage is a dealbreaker; no matter where a politician stands on other matters, young voters have a hard time supporting someone who is not in favor of marriage equality. “I think it is inevitable that the Republican Party’s position on this issue will change one day,” she writes. “And I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.” Fine, but how to make that happen?
And Anderson entirely sidesteps foreign policy and national security, on the rationale that “every day could mean an escalation of tensions or a terrorist attack that profoundly alters the landscape.” Sure, but that is precisely why those arenas matter, especially among a voting population that has grown weary of wars launched under Republican administrations.
By Anderson’s own analysis, it may be getting late for Republicans and millennials to get together. “Once a brand is associated with certain attitudes in our minds, it is tough to break that first impression.” And the impression of the Republican Party that she finds among young voters is hardly encouraging: “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” These aren’t people, she admits, who will necessarily grow more conservative as they get older.
Without deeper soul-searching by the GOP and a sustained outreach to communities it has previously neglected (beyond just election season), it’s hard to see how Anderson’s proposals alone would persuade millennials to give the GOP a second look. Then again, I’m just a Gen X slacker, so what do I know? Anderson is hopeful, citing the near-universal popularity of Pope Francis as a sign that a fresh leader can rehabilitate the reputation of a stodgy, traditional institution. A convert to Catholicism, Anderson thinks Francis has done more than simply rebrand the faith; in a self-absorbed world, he has put the call to serve others at the forefront of his message.
Notoriously nonjudgmental, millennials care little about how you live your life, focusing more on fairness, caring and avoiding harm to others. Anderson highlights the proposals of Rep. Paul Ryan ( Wis.) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), as well as reform-conservative thinker Yuval Levin, to argue that the conservative preference for local solutions and a commitment to community may broaden the party’s appeal. Those guys may not quite be Pope Francis, but Anderson believes that Republicans have a shot with millennials if they can show “how our convictions don’t just compel us to cut taxes for rich people but instead to apply our beliefs to improving the status of the least fortunate.”
That would constitute a rather significant status update by the Republican Party. But in Anderson’s telling, it’s a message millennials might like. Or at least “like.”
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush leans in for a selfie at a food truck. Kristen Soltis Anderson argues that the GOP faces obsolescence without millennials’ votes.
THE SELFIE VOTE Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up) By Kristen Soltis Anderson Broadside. 262 pp. $26.99