Editor’s note: The following is adapted from remarks made by Warren Cole Smith during a panel discussion on communicating with the millennial generation at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver earlier this summer.
Why are conservatives—in many critical areas—losing the cultural argument with millennials? After all, the guiding principle of conservatism is that it conserves. Specifically, it seeks to preserve the highest achievements and the best practices of those who have gone before us—and to build on them. That’s why facts, history, logic, reason, and data are so important to conservative thinking. But if facts, history, logic, reason, and data won arguments, conservatives would have been victorious long ago.
Here is my first piece of advice for communicating with millennials and for “moving the needle” in the cultural conversation: Find the right stories.
The musicologist and philosopher Damon of Thebes often gets credit for saying, “Give me the songs of a people, and I care not who writes its laws.” The great evangelical leader Chuck Colson, who knew a few things about politics as a former White House aide, often said, “Politics is downstream from culture.”
Those on the other side in the culture wars understand this truth. Several years ago, after more than 30 states had voted to affirm traditional, one-man/one-woman marriage, a homosexual activist was asked on CNN if he was discouraged that almost every time the American people had spoken on this issue at the ballot box, his side lost. He said no, because “Will and Grace is the No. 1 program on television.” And he was right, as the last few years have proven.
I do not mean to suggest that facts, data, statistics, logic, and reason are not important. Conservatives should continue to care about them, and to teach others to care about them. But stories are a primary way we process data. I offer Mark 4:34 as my biblical justification, where it explains that Jesus did not speak to large crowds except in parables. It also tells us that Jesus explained His parables to His disciples, His inner circle, in private. Conservatives should follow that example.
Let’s look to mathematics and the symbol pi to drive this point home. Pi represents the number 3.14. Of course, that’s imprecise because pi is actually an irrational number, infinitely nonrepeating a series of numbers. If I asked you to recite pi to 100 places, you’d likely laugh at the ridiculousness of the task, dismissing it as somewhere between impossible and irrelevant to your life. But if I asked you to recite your 10-digit home phone number, you could easily do that. If I then asked you to recite your 10-digit cell number, you could do that, too. What about your spouse’s number? The phone numbers of your parents or your children? What about your nine-digit Social Security number? The year you graduated from high school or college? The year you were born or got married or had children of your own?
Most of us have thousands of numbers filed away in our brain, but those numbers have a story behind them, stories give them meaning and context. Facts, logic, reason, history, and data matter—but stories make them come alive and make them memorable. Conservatives need to stop asking millennials, or anyone else, for that matter, to memorize pi to the 100th decimal point and start telling stories that—in the end—will help them to see the world through a conservative lens.
The second thing I would say to non-millennials who want to reach millennials is: Don’t lecture; listen, learn, and lead.
The worldview of millennials is a work in progress—just as it was for older folks like me when we were their age. They are influenceable. Former Sen. Jim DeMint said during his presentation at the Western Conservatives Summit that conservatives must get better at talking to the “moveable middle,” people who can be influenced if conservatives don’t insult their intelligence, and a reasonable case can be made that’s free of jargon and dismissive labels.
For the most part, millennials are a part of that group. With a tip of the hat to Sen. DeMint, I would call them the “moveable millennials.” If conservatives would listen to them, learn of their goals and aspirations as well as their fears and concerns, and provide leadership worthy of their followership, they would follow and learn and end up being leaders themselves.
The third thing I recommend—and it follows logically from the first two—is to be patient and persistent.
There is much truth in a famous remark often attributed to Winston Churchill that a person who at age 20 is not a liberal has no heart, and a person who at age 40 is not a conservative has no brain. We tend to get more conservative as we get older. That’s partly because we obtain more knowledge and experience, but it is also because when we get older our time horizon moves outward.
When you are 60 years old and have children and, possibly, grandchildren, you begin to care much more about how the world will look 50 years from now. A half-century hence doesn’t seem like the distant future when you have lived a half-century or more and have vivid memories of your own youth. You know that the world of the future is one that will be on us in an instant, and it is a world your children and grandchildren will have to live in. The problems they will have to solve will be ones we create today, and you care about what kind of world you will leave for them. That’s why I would add to Churchill’s reputed old saw that if you are 60 years old and do not feel the weight of that responsibility, you have neither a brain nor a heart.
But if conservatives expect 20-somethings to share that perspective, they are failing to remember the slow and painful way it was acquired—which is a form of arrogance—and to see the great gifts of energy, urgency, and optimism that young people can bring to the conservative cause.