The term “millennial” has not only captured the attention of TIME magazine readers, but has now painstakingly found its way to the forefront of buzzword demography. I take great caution with the word: its usage generally goes unquantified in definition, and is often pejorative, as salty as any rocks tumbling through the generation gap. Let’s look at “millennial” as a mindset; a state of being, or, not being. Being millennial is cool. Being millennial is having 359 followers on Instagram. Being millennial is texting while being spoken to. And being millennial is not giving a damn about politics.
Which is a shame, because the millennialism could save the Republican Party. If, you know, it wants to.
Say we’re going to tax the internet. Specifically, pass a bipartisan bill through the Senate called the Marketplace Fairness Act, that would allow states to universally collect taxes on all goods sold online. According to Gallup, millennials would say that’s way not cool. In fact, 73% of millennials would vote against an internet sales tax. That’s huge. Only 37% of Democrats would ban handguns. You can’t even find 73% of a group of Republicans who want to repeal Obamacare. When it affects their life, millennials speak up; in this case, in a very conservative tone against taxes.
The millennial is a huge consumer of content, goods, and services. The techno-Bohemian cultures that have sprouted in the Valley, Williamsburg, Austin, and Portland attract an extremely specific lifestyle, with tastes for farm-to-table restaurants, yoga studios, and high-end audio equipment stores. The popularity of apps like car-service Uber and AirBnB reinforces how popular these areas and their growing culture are. While some may write off urban millennial culture as superficial and cool chasing, this lifestyle attracts entrepreneurs. Small businesses like Blue Bottle Coffee have gone from garage pop-ups to multi-city franchise, thriving on being boutique and a high-quality alternative to Starbucks.
Let’s accept that the behaviors we associate with millennialism—social bandwagoning, narcissism, short attention spans—are byproducts of the available technology. Millennials are masters of economizing the smartphone and the web (though most claim to be technologically inept). The number of Likes for any post are on the public record. This metric rules the online world. How many likes a post receives is a statistic constantly being used in a social context, to measure a post’s success, meaning, popularity, x, y, and z. Similarly, an individual’s follower-to-following ratio is an extremely traded statistic when a Twitter handle is discussed. Millennials see the potential and opportunity for datapoints like that, and are good detectors of what is and isn’t popular. What is cool and hip is crowded and lauded — what isn’t is viciously and brutally rejected. Rules of social Darwinism tell us the best ideas are what’s trending on Facebook, Twitter, and Buzzfeed, and people rush to be the first to make a post viral the same way investors rush to fund capital for ventures. Navigating the world in this manner clings to notions of a free market of social capital; millennials are attuned to a more fundamental competitive nature that modern conservatism was founded upon. The knack to quantify, economize, and budget data, combined with fiscal conservative leanings on issues that matter to them, might be shedding some modest light on some inherent conservative values embedded within millennialism.
But if this conservative rational is subtly embedded within millennial culture, why are so many millennials averse to politics? Beyond Putnamesque forecasts of low voter interest, there is comparatively more power being a millennial than a voter. With Washington often caught in political gridlock, a Republican platform alienating to new voters, and the growing power of interests groups, it’s easily said that young and new voters feel more power swiping through their smartphones than looking at a ballot. The issues millennials care about most are often single-issue (and hashtaggable) campaigns like Kony 2012, the initial 99% Tumblr posts or #standwithwendy. And due to positioning by a select few Republicans with highly visible media coverage, the perception of young activists is that the GOP tends to fall on the wrong side of each of these issues. Pew has it that 50% of millennials see themselves as politically independent and wary of big institutions. But the GOP could get these votes; there is an inherent framework in the millennial way of thought for rational conservatism. Much of the Op-Ed salad these days likes to draw a dynamic of Tea Party vs. Establishment Republicans, but I see neither as being the answer for a reboot. The GOP should opt for a simple, streamlined platform that clicks with young voters and does away with the unnecessary righteousness and rhetoric of the louder side of the Republican Party.
Our generation faces higher debt, unemployment, and lower wealth than the last two before it. Income inequality used to a pillar of the Republican platform. Nixon supported a form of monthly guaranteed income for the poor with the Family Assistance Plan; as California governor, Reagan designed low-cost welfare programs that saved the state from bankruptcy. When millennials start feeling the burn of personal and national debt, it’s going to be important that the Republican Party has adopted a platform focused on rational spending, the management of debt, and sensible welfare options for the poor.
The fact that millennials are the most racially diverse generation means issues like immigration reform will matter more to them; these issues need to be rigorously pursued. The more recent attempts to get immigration reform passed, like the bill once supported by Senator Rubio, ought to be considered an important lesson. The GOP could have achieved legislation on an issue that matters to a lot of future voters. That’s an investment you may not see a return on in the midterm elections. But the passage of a bill would be worth any cries from the far right, and would be worth much more than the nothing we have to show for all the cyclical debate, gridlock, and time spent pouring over the issue. Rather that get caught up in the quagmire of voter ID laws, the GOP needs to choose these types of solid wins; situations where actual legislation can be passed and moved forward and later enacted. Millennials will remember it. To spread the sheet of the GOP platform thinly across issues like abortion and marriage equality has alienated millions of young voters. The GOP needs to focus on a few things, and do those things really well. They can start by crafting actionable responses to key millennial issues like immigration and income inequality, instead of ideological gamesmanship that holds welfare and the federal budget in limbo.
The key to capturing millennial voters won’t be a slick social media campaign, a false conception of what they think millennials want. Republicans would waste thousands of dollars on PR money if they choose to simply take the word progressive back from the Democrats. A proper GOP reboot will need to start with committed players to a few issues that speak to millennials, and then with legislation that reflects that developing relationship. If Senator Rand Paul’s recent trip to UC Berkeley wasn’t about 2016, then you could say he’s doing a good job cultivating that relationship by addressing privacy concerns (and opening a Snapchat account, of all things). One gem from his speech comes straight from Silicon Valley mythos, the exact words commanded by every startup CEO: “The Republican Party must evolve, adapt or die.”