Perhaps the most significant issues facing the future of conservatives are social in nature.
These are also the issues over which traditional conservatives are at great odds with Millennials.
In order to be relevant to this generation, conservatives must change course and adapt, as all great philosophies eventually do in order to survive. In this case, the adaptation is actually returning to true conservative roots and reminding the base and larger Republican Party about its actual principles: limited government in all instances.
Conservatives seem to contradict themselves in reference to limited government when the matters are social, moral or spiritual in nature. Unfortunately, these are precisely the areas where Millennials really don’t think the government should enforce prohibitive laws concerning morality.
Even those who privately stand against the promotion of “controversial” social issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion are against government preventing these rights for those who want them. More than any other issue, this understanding of Millennials and their generational cultural shift will diminish the future of the conservative movement, if not thoughtfully considered and handled with empathy.
Most contemporary conservatives preach strict morality. They believe it is essential for a democratic republic to raise moral citizens if the government is to be efficient and as incorruptible as possible. But for Millennials, and even my generation, forcing a certain type of morality in the public sphere is objectionable.
The tide has turned on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, concerning how the government enforces and/or guarantees these rights. By continuing to focus on being “anti-rights” in these arenas, conservatives risk losing a large percentage of voters who are individually conservative, but who understand that these issues are no longer important to governing efficiently.
Being publicly opposed to these issues also sends a message of hate to supporters of gay rights, for example. One can still be conservative and support these rights in the public sphere.
Being conservative is about individual conduct and limited government. It is also about promoting the civil, natural and human rights of all individuals. Thus, government should not be involved with these issues unless it is enforcing positive liberty, that is, setting the conditions for equality for those who would be discriminated against otherwise.
It is not a contradiction to be a traditional social or “moral” conservative in private life, even to the extent of advocating those views, while supporting or at least not hindering the moral rights of others that you might find objectionable.
Remember, it is not the government’s job to legislate morality. It is our job to live our lives in a moral, virtuous manner (which at least for me, is enough of a challenge to keep up with without forcing these views on others). If conservatives continue to fight too strongly against LGTBQ rights, abortion and the legalization of marijuana, they will suffer in upcoming elections.
Millennial Conservatism focuses on the devolution of power from the federal to the state and local government. This means, at best for the Republican Party moving forward, if it wants to stand against these social issues, the argument ought to be that the power to determine these rights should be in the hands of the individual states, based on the views and stances of their citizens.
But in no way should the government at the federal level be invoked to hinder rights to others that we may find objectionable. Don’t confuse the public sphere with private morality. It is contradictory to argue for limited government, but then ask the government to dictate moral terms to others who have a different understanding of morality.
As the conservatives of the future, Millennials are focused on civic virtue: how to make the political system more just for the most people. That means being fair and equitable to even those you may disagree with. If Republicans want to win elections in the future, the battle must be shifted to other areas, and moral issues must be fought by individual example, with love, empathy, sacrifice and compassion.
Mark my words: If the GOP continues to focus on social issues as a government problem, it will not win many national elections, commencing with the next presidential election. One can be for traditional marriage, pro-life, anti-marijuana, pro-industry (and hence unconcerned with environmental issues such as climate change) without asking the government to limit these rights. That is discrimination, and conservatives should not stand for it. If they do, Millennials will punish them at the ballot box in future elections.
As a pro-life advocate, I can individually and privately defend the fact that life begins at conception, and that abortion should be limited, without asking the government to enforce that. In fact, in some way it is perhaps more honorable to fight the good fight without the assistance of the government Leviathan. This is certainly more consistent with conservative values than invoking big government.
Politics are Machiavellian. You must calculate cost/benefits analysis and be strategic and prudent in the issues to focus upon. Conservatives must be focused on their message of liberty without government infringement upon our personal moral choices. It is not up to us to force others to live a morality of our choosing. Such choices are between individuals and the Creator.
I hope those who disagree with traditional Catholicism never seek to legislate anti-Catholic values that directly prohibit the practice of my religious morals. Reciprocally, I hope the government doesn’t legislate discriminatory laws concerning moral rights and choices to those who have different moral interpretations than I do.
Only living by this creed can the conservative movement survive the Millennial generation. And that is what Millennial Conservatism stands for.
The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Augusta University. Follow him on Twitter: @polscountrydoc.