Republican policies and rhetoric will evolve to meet the preferences of future voters.
Republican policies and rhetoric will evolve to meet the preferences of future voters.

About the politics of the so-called millennials, and specifically the question of whether they might turn conservative with age, Matt Yglesias muses in a nice item: “More interesting than asking whether people born in the 1990s will be voting GOP in the 2020s, I think, is asking what kind of a GOP it would have to be for them to vote for it.”

He then takes a quick tour of Republican policy positions and rhetoric (focus on Ronald Reagan, the idea of “Beyonce voters,” opposition to bicycle lanes) that he considers “weird.” Or at least, he claims they sound weird to most younger voters.1

Two things are going on here. One is that a lot of the rhetoric, and perhaps many policy positions, are being driven not so much by the demographics of Republican voters, but by the demographics of consumers of Republican-aligned media. That is, people who watch Fox News are really old! We can look, then, at the extent to which the particular biases and preferences of customers of the conservative marketplace wind up affecting Republican policy positions.

The other thing is that Yglesias has it mostly backwards. He finds Republican positions such as (to add one he doesn't mention) fetishizing old-style light bulbs “weird” because they’re not logically connected to the small government/low taxes ideology.

But that’s expecting too much of ideology. If parties are becoming more ideological, they are more likely to converge on an ideology of consistent positions than one of logically coherent big-picture ideas. That is, what we mean by saying that Republicans are more ideological is that, increasingly, Republicans (at least at the elite level) take identical positions on everything from health care to abortion to gun control to torture to bike paths and light bulbs. So if someone says they'll never eat at Chick-Fil-A, you can guess that person is pro-choice on abortion, approves of the Affordable Care Act and opposed the Iraq War. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that there exists a set of principles that would allow us to deduce where either party will stand on any emerging issue.

All of which means that Republicans will adapt to the biases and preferences of people who vote Republican in the 2020s, rather than only attracting people who are drawn to the current Republican mix of policies and rhetoric. And why will people be Republicans? Because they started out as Republicans (either by inheritance, or because they started voting in good Republican years). If the economy collapses when a Democratic president is in office, Republican "oldster" rhetoric isn't going to matter much.2

Or, to put it another way: The reason that Democratic positions and rhetoric, especially on second and third-tier issues, sound good to Yglesias and those younger than him is that he and so many of those folks are Democrats. Not the other way around. And when younger voters are mostly Republican (and, yes, that’s going to happen at some point), then Republican rhetoric and policy preferences will adapt to that cohort.

1 Huge caveat: we’re all grossly generalizing here; not all younger voters are alike, of course, with income and ethnicity and region and all sorts of things mattering in many cases far more than age. I’m okay with it being a useful, if limited, generalization, however.

2 Yglesias is skeptical of the research showing that partisanship is relatively fixed once people begin voting, citing the stuff he’s been reading about the 1850s. And, yes, it’s always good to remember that in politics past trends may not hold. But you probably couldn’t find a more unusual decade to work from as a comparison, at least after the Jacksonian expansion of voting. One party collapses, a new one replaces it, the other major party cracks in half and takes the Union with it … Well, sure, if traumas of that scale occur, then research covering the last 70 years or so might not apply, but that doesn’t seem very likely.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.