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Issues & Insights

Conservatism Inc.’s Shrinking Consumer Base

If there’s a future for conservatism, it must include Millennials and Gen Z 

Today’s conservatism looks like the political version of Sears, Roebuck and Company — a former titan in the marketplace that has lost its luster. Only 12% of young people consistently identify as conservative. For years, conservatives have sought to ensure their preferences were preserved on the policy landscape. However, their weak position among Millennials and Gen Z will demand much more humility and listening. Conservatism Inc. needs to go through a turnaround and restructuring before it heads to a complete corporate liquidation.

Walking up and down the aisles of Conservatism Inc., you will quickly understand why many young people aren’t buying what conservatives are trying to sell. If Conservatism Inc. wants to rival their progressive competitor they’re going to need to understand the demographics of this target audience and begin an aggressive campaign to win their business.

Reevaluating the product line

There is a widening chasm between Millennials and older Americans, which fuels a perception that conservatives are exclusionary, uninterested in social inequities, and tolerant of cronyism. Conservatives ought to examine this perception and decide if there is any truth to it. If so, what changes should be made in substance and branding?

Unfortunately, rather than adapting to market signals from younger voters, the GOP has narrowed its product line to #BoomerFirst Jacksonian populism that has minimal appeal to young people. But in this era of political disillusionment, conservatives desperately need to study what the market is signaling, while holding tightly to their core values. This means an earnest journey to becoming a more vibrant, welcoming, and hopeful brand steeped in values that transcend generational lines. 

Understanding the consumer

 We often hear that young people are socialism-curious and have become cynical about capitalism. Yes and no. 

While young people are certainly expressing more interest in socialism, survey results reveal that young people are more ideologically adrift and not settled in their thinking. In marketing terms, this means that they are hesitant to commit to a brand, especially one that carries with it a host of stigmas and perceptions that seem incongruent to their worldview. 

Improving the user experience

If Conservatism Inc. wants to improve user experience and bolster its relationship with younger Americans, it should showcase its commitment to concepts like free enterprise, individual liberty, and pluralism. 

Offering this youthful demographic a political framework that speaks to their desire for economic prosperity and celebrated diversity, while navigating nuanced topics likes criminal justice and immigration reform is essential.

It’s important to note that conservatism does not endorse libertinism, nor is it indifferent to morality and the importance of civil society. Rather, in an age of identity politics, polarization, and government coercion, conservatives can offer a better way forward that holds the concepts of liberty and virtue in a healthy tension.

Authentic branding

Having the right policy solutions means nothing without good messaging and effective marketing, but clever marketing alone will not produce the intended results. Branding must be authentic. 

Conservatives would do well to remember that their principles are rooted in hope. Ronald Reagan reminded Americans of this hope on the heels of the Carter-era stagflation. He offered morning in America and he delivered. 

The funny thing about Reagan was that he was not a young man when he ran for president in 1980. In fact, septuagenarian Reagan’s age was the basis of one of his greatest lines. In other words, conservatives don’t have to offer a young candidate; they have to offer hope and authenticity that resonates with a youthful voter.

Unfortunately, the current political class only seems interested in short-term dominance rather than long-term sustainability. Despite the economic growth in the past few years, the conservative brand has suffered among young consumers. Economic protectionism, embraced by many in the GOP, has cast doubt on whether Conservatism Inc. will be ready to weather the next recession (which may come sooner rather than later). 

Research and development

The market is demanding leadership and policy innovation. What does Conservatism Inc. have to offer for the millions of Americans struggling to afford healthcare? Where can it speak into the lives of those in urban centers? How can it think in visionary terms as Americans navigate the future of work? Do we have something to say about ensuring a good education is available to all children, regardless of their zip code or income? 

Conservatives need answers to these issues that are true to their principles, not merely a discounted version of democratic socialism. When conservatives see a social or economic problem, they should first examine root causes before proposing some politically popular, but likely ineffective, bailout or handout. Conservatives should always ask what prior policy created unintended consequences that need to be reversed.

Conservatism Inc. needs to reassess its brand before it’s too late. When a brand loses its appeal, it’s hard to get it back. Just ask Sears, Roebuck and Company.

Doug McCullough is director of the Lone Star Policy Institute based in Dallas, Texas, and Brooke Medina is communications director at Civitas Institute, based in Raleigh, N.C.


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4 comments

  • It’s doomed to failure while the left dominates education; K through PhD…..

    • And that kind of tide will take decades, at least, to stem or reverse. You’ve got to term-limit all the socialist-leaning ‘teachers’ from K through post-grad.

      Any polls of left/right slant, for example, in colleges are hard-pressed to find ANY conservatives at all. Most are ostracized or muzzled or picketed or otherwise run off of campuses by “those who know better.”

      I’ve watched this for decades and have just about given up all hope of positive change.

  • While secularism has been growing in the US for decades, everyone from the RNC to the NRA have clung to their bibles and demeaned or ostracized atheists and even the LBGTQ+ communities who believe in free markets and the Second Amendment.

    Those are good ways to limit your membership and support based solely on prejudices and beliefs that are, at their roots, religion-based.

    Those kinds of self-defeating and self-limiting policies come from within, not from their opponents.

  • It’s not difficult. Con, Inc is the other side of the coin of Democrats. They attacked Trump, they support bailouts as being “smart economics,” they want the country flooded with non-whites to lower wages. They even have contempt for average working Americans.

    What is the point of Con, Inc? We vote them into office, they dither and get nothing accomplished that they promised (wall building, ending Ocare, etc. etc.), then wonder why no one supports them. Oh yeah, and how about the massive number of SCOTUS judges Con Inc has appointed over the decades, yet they still might as well have been appointed by Leftists.

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