What’s in a name? A lot, especially when it comes to politics. We love to label people and politicians as conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, good or bad. Labels make it easy for us to put people in nice, neat little boxes and keep them there. If persons are an X, then they must believe A, B and C no questions asked. If they are a Y then they believe D, E and F. No muss, no fuss. But oftentimes completely wrong.
It’s why I resist being put in a box and why I try not to label myself as anything more than “center-right.” Alternatively, I try for something more exotic and unknowable like libertarian-leaning traditionalist, or maybe Straussian constitutionalist. I don’t want to be, as it were, living in a little box on the hillside and looking just the same as everyone else in similar boxes.
One thing about being center-right or the more limiting “conservative” is that there is no developed ideology, no book, no specific philosopher to fall back on. There are no rules to being a conservative, broadly understood. That’s why we find civil wars within the Republican Party — the center-right party — and why perception is more important than reality in defining people who take on the Republican label.
Perception rather than reality is clearly the case for Millennials (18- to 29-year-olds). Last week, the Reason Foundation released a national poll of 2,400 Millennials that yielded some interesting and surprising results. One fundamental feature of the Millennials’ worldview is that they mean something different when talking about political issues than Baby Boomers or Gen X’ers do.
For instance, 62 percent of Millennials label themselves as liberal. Yet, 66 percent think that government is usually inefficient and wasteful and 63 percent think government regulators usually act on the behalf of special interests. Those anti-big government views are hardly the stuff of traditional liberal beliefs.
Curiously, 42 percent of Millennials say they prefer Socialism, while only 16 percent can correctly define it as the government owning the means of production (all things used in producing goods or services). If they understood the term as others do, perhaps fewer would favor it as 55 percent say they want to start their own business. Yet owning a business (no matter how disruptive or techie) is simply not allowed in a true Socialist state.
To Boomers and X’ers used to traditional definitions and labels, Millennials should be on the receiving end of Inigo Montoya’s line from “The Princess Bride,” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
However, that gives Republicans and those espousing center-right policies a tremendous opening. What Millennials mean by liberal is generally what their parents and grandparents mean by libertarian. And libertarians are part of the center-right coalition. Millennials essentially have a live-and-let-live attitude that is labeled as liberal in their minds. To them, liberal only covers issues such as legalizing marijuana and supporting gay marriage (an important touchstone, even though less than 3 percent of the population identifies as LGBT).
Since these are positions of prominent Republican politicians such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who supports medical marijuana and Gov. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who supports gay marriage, there is clearly room for them to garner Millennial support.
Moreover, that support is up for grabs. Millennials are less partisan than older generations (some might call it disengaged), even compared to those just over 30. Just 43 percent of them identify as Democrat or Democrat-leaning, while 49 percent of older voters do so. Moreover, 34 percent say they are independents, as compared to just 10 percent of their elders.
Those numbers offer Republicans a route to success, if they learn to speak the Millennials’ language and not talk past them. Dropping “conservative” and “capitalism” from their lexicon, while still keeping the concepts of free exchange and support for hard work and achievement, would be good places to start.
The trouble with political labels and boxes is that they don’t tell the whole story. On the other hand, labels can mean something to one group and something completely different to another. If you don’t want to be stereotyped and don’t want to be classified, avoid labels and the ticky-tacky boxes others want to put you in.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.