“It???s the economy, stupid??? was the rallying cry of the Republican Party as it tried to brand the 2012 election as a battle between competing ideologies of big government versus limited government. The problem for the GOP in the 2012 elections wasn???t its strategy or messaging. Indeed, it likely kept the GOP from even greater losses.
The brand of limited government is a good one, and very popular amongst young people. The GOP doesn???t have it, though, because the GOP doesn???t actually support limited government these days. No matter how often the GOP repeats this abstract phrase, its policies and actions contradict them. The problem for the GOP is its beliefs.
The 2012 election presented a choice between the man who authored Obamacare and the man who took it national. As bad as Obama???s bailouts for large corporations and his ballooning the national debt are, he learned how to do it from George W. Bush. The list of big government economic policies from Republicans goes on, and the divergence between Republican rhetoric and actions on economic issues has been addressed ad nauseum in other forums.
The main problem for the GOP, though, is the opposition to liberty of social and neoconservatism. The GOP can no longer get away with claiming to be for limited government except when it applies to foreigners, people who are gay, people of certain religions, personal decisions, or basically anything that is different from one kind of lifestyle. Romney???s strategy of simply avoiding social issues wasn???t enough, because even if he???s not talking about them, he still held them, and other Republicans were outspoken on them, people who would have influenced him.
These are problems for the general public, but are they even greater for today???s youth because this is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed (in terms of philosophy, not party affiliation). Today???s youth believe in the free market and distrust government solutions to economic woes (e.g. bailing out big corporations). More than they support economic liberty, though, they are pro social liberty, as evidenced by their overwhelming support for issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
Back in 2000, young voters split evenly in voting for Bush and Gore. However, ever since then, young people have been moving further and further away from the Republican Party, reaching a height in 2008 when Obama trounced McCain 66 percent to 31 percent among young voters. The reason is straightforward: the big government conservatism of George W. Bush. Young people who might have once thought they were conservative realized that they weren???t and abandoned the GOP in droves.
Yet there is hope for the GOP. Young people who realized they weren???t conservative because of Bush are now starting to realize they aren???t liberal either because of the hypocrisy of Obama. Young voters split 60 percent to 36 percent for Obama, the margin declining by 11 percent in four years not because young people liked Romney, but because they realized Obama didn???t stand for the issues they care about, such as civil liberties and ending the wars overseas. But his rhetoric was much better than Romney???s.
If the GOP wants to become relevant to young people again, it doesn???t need to simply change its messaging. It needs to change its policies, and actually stand for limited government by giving up social and neoconservatism. It needs to proclaim a mea culpa writ large for the offensive views of some of its leaders (such as Todd Akin) and its opposition to individual liberty in social policies. Republican policy stances need to change and new leaders need to be nominated, candidates who support gay marriage and marriage legalization, who favor a less interventionist foreign policy, people who actually stand for individual liberty at home and abroad.
Look at the other results of this election: Gay marriage was approved by voters in three states, with significant support from young people. Marijuana was legalized in two states. Ron Paul won the youth vote in one-third of the Republican primary caucuses and came in second place in another one-third (and it wasn???t because of his rugged good looks). The signs are clear: we are the libertarian generation, and we take social issues as seriously as economic issues.
The question GOP leadership put before the public has been turned around on them by young people: ???Which is more important, economic or social issues???? If Republicans actually do care most about a thriving economy and stand for limited government, they need to make their stances on social issues cohere.
Alexander McCobin is founder and president of Students For Liberty, studentsforliberty.org. He received his B.A. and A.M. from the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Georgetown University.