Over the last several years, data has shown that Millennials – broadly defined as those born between 1980 and 1997 – are strongly non-partisan, and lean somewhat libertarian on policy. Several comprehensive polls have backed this contention up, painting a picture of a generation that is socially tolerant, yet skeptical of large institutions.
Much ink has been spilled analyzing the fact that while a contingent of young Americans sympathize with fiscally conservative positions, our largely generational commitment to social liberalism has kept us from identifying with a political party that stakes its identity on promoting “traditional values,” often through government force.
As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center, who has researched the views of Millennials extensively said, “There is a libertarian streak that is apparent among these left-of-center young people. Socially liberal but very wary of government.” Furthering this point, a Reason-Rupe poll found that to the extent young people identify as liberals, they do so primarily for social reasons. As Emily Ekins of Reason explained:
“Coding millennials’ responses reveals that for most liberal and progressive millennials, their ideological label primarily reflects social liberalism, not necessarily economic liberalism. Overall, 68 percent of self-identified liberals’ explanations mentioned elements of social tolerance and personal freedom, while only 35 percent mentioned economics.”
Another factor that pollsters have studied but has received less attention is foreign policy. Reason found that even among Republican Millennials, there’s a strong distrust of how the government handles international affairs and that overall, 38% trust neither party on the matter. Democrats however, have a trust factor of 34%, while Republicans languish at 23%.
To delve into this issue beyond existing analyses, The Cato Institute recently published a study that looks at the foreign policy views of Millennials, and breaks these trends down in a generational context. The paper’s authors, Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner, note that several factors have led to Millennials viewing foreign policy in a manner very different than that of our elders.
As they explain:
“The Millennial Generation will be most deeply affected by historical context and events between the mid-1990s, when the oldest Millennials started to reach young adulthood, and the early 2020s, when the youngest Millennials will reach their mid-twenties….
…. The first category comprises the trends and events that started or occurred before the Millennials came of age and provide their historical context. This includes the end of the Cold War and the evolution of the global distribution of power, the development of the Internet, and the acceleration of globalization… The second category includes major discrete events that have occurred so far during the Millennials’ critical period—most obviously the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ….
…. But whereas historical context is largely invisible to most Millennials, thereby shaping perceptions subconsciously, 9/11 and the War on Terror are more salient to Millennials than to others and are very much at the center of how Millennials process issues of foreign affairs. Indeed, the unprecedented nature of 9/11 and the United States’ response to it raise the prospect of a ‘9/11 Generation’ that may view future national security and war very differently from the ‘Vietnam Generation’ or its predecessor, the ‘Munich Generation.’”
Thrall and Goepner also place a strong emphasis on the end of the Cold War, which to most Millennials, is part of history, or at least something that happened when we were very young. Said the authors:
“The Cold War world was known for its high-stakes brinkmanship and increasing bipolarity, with the United States leading one side and the Soviet Union leading the other. Mutually assured destruction reminded policymakers and citizens alike of just how dangerous the world had become ….
…. Since the end of the Cold War, however, threats are smaller, less urgent, and have come from an array of sources rather than a single rival. At the same time, bipolarity has given way to a more complex distribution of power; individuals, non-state actors, and transnational networks now influence both U.S. national security and the foreign policy process in ways unimagined during the Cold War. In the face of these changes in the international environment, the United States now lacks an obvious North Star to guide debate and decisions.”
It can certainly be claimed that the aforementioned Cold War consensus has been, in some cases ineffectively, applied to more modern international challenges. Millennials were shaped by 9/11, but at the same time, we saw the failures of treating a roving, non-state terror threat as something that could be rooted out for example, by invading Iraq. As Rand Paul has aptly noted, toppling secular dictators has had the unfortunate consequence of creating a power vacuum, in which groups like ISIS have been given free range to rise.
Given this, it’s unsurprising that the generation that came of age as our peers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan fears more than our elders that U.S. policy abroad, even if well-intentioned, can lead to chaos. In fact, Cato found that a majority of Millennials share this view, which backs up Reason’s findings that even young Republicans distrust the government on foreign policy. “A lot of the older generation is still stuck in the Cold War,” a 25-year-old respondent told Cato.
These realities pose a problem for politicians, especially Republicans, looking to reach young voters. While there is undoubtedly a libertarian wing of the GOP, most notably represented by Rand Paul, a generational gap threatens to derail current progress. In fact, pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News this week that, “(Republican primary) voters absolutely reject (Paul’s) position on foreign policy.” Similarly, the other GOP candidates reject Paul, and in turn, the foreign policy views of Millennials.
Of course, we cannot expect a near-consensus on foreign policy among Republican politicians and voters to shift overnight, even with the changes Millennials are starting to bring to the table. As with social issues, progress in the realm of international affairs is likely to come as Millennials both age into senior positions in government and older viewpoints eventually fall out of mainstream favor.
The question for Republicans in the meantime however, seems to be how to address these gaps between the typically older voters who make up their primary-voting base, and a general electorate where Millennials have proven to be a strong enough swing vote to sweep President Obama into office.
Recent polling consistently indicates that Rand Paul, the Republican most aligned with young independents, performs best against Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup, where Millennial influence outpaces its relatively small impact in Republican primaries. Despite Paul’s consistent general election strength however, his polling numbers among likely Republican primary voters have dropped; though it’s too soon to know for sure if he, or any other member of the vast GOP field, will rise above the early noise.
Ultimately, even if we don’t see it during this election, there will inevitably be many changes both to the Republican Party, and government in general as Millennials come of age. While people within the same generation clearly have differing political views, there are many underlying attitudes that color basic outlooks. There’s no doubt that even the most hawkish of Millennials will have a different, if not more restrained view, of what’s possible foreign policy wise in light of what Cato’s authors refer to as the “Iraq effect.”
The challenge for Republicans presently is that the gap between their primary voters and that of the general electorate on foreign policy and other key issues appears to be wide enough that overcoming it could be very difficult on a national scale. This ought to be a wake-up call to young voters that we can in fact have an influence in Republican primaries and therefore the ultimate presidential outcome if we actively organize, vote, and hold politicians with reckless views accountable. We don’t have to be clones of our elders to be our own type of Republican. Impacting the GOP primaries might just be the only way those of us who are fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, foreign policy realists will have a political voice.
Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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