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Young Conservatives Define 'This American Moment'

Young Conservatives Define 'This American Moment'

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As Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minn. for the Republican National Convention, Talk of the Nation continues its series on the significance of this moment in the nation's history. Two young conservatives, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, explain what this election means to them.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, on this second day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, we do continue our series of conversations about This American Moment. Starting last week, we've taken a step back to put this election and this campaign season in context every day. We're asking different guests to tell us what they think is at stake, what this election means to them. And just a minute, two young conservatives will join us, and we want to know what This American Moment means to the young people in our audience.

What's at stake for you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Reihan Salam and Ross Douhat - excuse me, Douthat - join us now from NPR's headquarters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. They're editors at the Atlantic, coauthors of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," and thank you both very much for being with us today.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Associate Editor, The Atlantic; Coauthor, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Social Working Class and Save the American Dream"): Thanks so much for having us, Neal.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Senior Editor, The Atlantic; Co-author, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Social Working Class and Save the American Dream"): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And I guess the good news is that unprecedented numbers of young people are participating in politics this year, but - though, I suppose from your point of view, the bad news may be that, so far at least, they're overwhelmingly supporting Barack Obama.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah. This is a tough moment for Republicans with young voters. And I think that the Republican Party is in danger of having a moment with young voters like the Democratic Party did in the 1980s. If you look back to the Reagan era and to the generation that came of age in that period, Generation X, they ended up being the most Republican cohort in modern American political history, partially just because your political, you know, your political tendencies are - tend to be formed during your first few elections as a voting American.

And they were voting during elections when the GOP was riding high and when there was a perception that Republican for the party of an expansive future of mourning in America. And today's young people, people in our generation have been formed politically by eight years of George W. Bush. And it's been, to put it mildly, a tough eight years for the Republican Party, and I think that's showing up in the enthusiasm gap, you know, between young people's enthusiasm for Barack Obama and their lack of enthusiasm for the GOP.

CONAN: And Ross Douthat, is this one of those things where people set their brand preferences - we're told advertisers worry that they're going to choose a Right Guard or Crest by the time they're 21, and after that, it's very hard to dissuade people from their brand choices. Is the Republican brand in trouble with young people?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think, you know, I think you can overstate that a little bit. I think, if you look, for instance, at before the Reagan era, you know, in the late '60s and early '70s, when a lot of lifelong Democrats turned to the Republican Party for the first time, those definitely weren't young voters. You know, the famous Nixon silent majority in '68 and '72 was composed of middle-income, middle-aged Americans who'd voted Democratic their whole life and were casting their first vote for Republicans. So, definitely political preferences can change later in life, in middle age. And Democrats, for years, have often counted on a huge youth turnout that hasn't emerged. But that being said, you know, this may not be quite as bad a situation for the GOP as it looks, but there's no way to say it's a good situation.

CONAN: Mm-hm. And Reihan Salam, how would you estimate - what would you estimate is at stake in this election for you?

Mr. SALAM: That's a very tough question to answer. There's so many moving parts right now in the American political scene. I think that both of our political parties, major political parties, have been really calcified. You've seen a lot of the same issues that play for a long time and I think that's about to change. When you're looking at young voters, like, you know, Ross and myself, we're in a generation that's much different than its demographic composition and also in its social views from those that came before us.

So, if you look at someone like Sarah Palin, for example, her - she's pro-life on abortion, but she's also pro-gay rights. That's an interesting mix, but it's actually a pretty common mix among people our age. So, I think that - that's what I'm hoping to see. I'm hoping to see this younger generation - this America, that, frankly, is a lot browner - you could - you know, that's a lot more Asian and Latino and black than generations that come before, really have a place at the table. So that's something I'm definitely excited about. And I think that the Republican Party needs to pay attention to that.

CONAN: Pay attention to it, but if there's a - there seemed to be a point, and Republicans made a lot of people sit up and listen, when they said, look, the Democratic Party seems to be out of ideas. And that was several years ago. And conservative ideas back to the Ronald Reagan's time seem to dominate the American political discourse. Now a lot of people are saying, well, the Republican Party seems to be out of ideas, too.

Mr. SALAM: Well, I mean, I think the thing about the ideas the Democratic Party has is that there are fairly old ideas, but they're still very potent ideas. And the core idea is an idea about economic security, and I think that what Republicans need to do is offer a parallel idea that really might resonate with younger voters about economic resilience. What are the tools that we can give you to bounce back to change, to change with the changing shape of the economy? And I think that Republicans haven't been focused on that, because they keep trying to change the subject from healthcare, education, jobs, and the changing nature of the economy to areas where they feel comfortable, like national security, toughness, and a lot of the traditional social issues.

CONAN: Well, Ross Douthat, it also seems to be a question of the role of government. Traditionally, conservatives say less government, lower taxes, strong defense, and that's been sort of the mantra. Certainly less government did not happen under the George W. Bush administration. And the difference in the two parties seems to have blurred there, and also this idea that Democrats have that - that government, you need it sometimes. It should be your friend.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Sure. I mean, I think that, you know, one thing that Republicans have gotten to trouble with is that there's an expectation among Americans, and especially among young Americans, that institutions are going to work. You know, you grow up now in an environment where you can, you know, send a package around the world in a blink of an eye. You know, you can order anything you want from Europe on amazon.com and so on and so forth. And our governmental institutions really haven't kept up, and in the Bush years especially, there's been a perception that, you know, yes, Americans are people who want limited government, you know, they want a low tax burden and so on. But they want the government that we have to be run well, and that's a place where Republicans have really fallen down on the job, I think.

CONAN: We're talking with two young conservatives, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, that they are editors at The Atlantic and coauthors of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." We're asking young people to join us today on the air, give us a call. What does This American Moment mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's get Rachel on the line, Rachel with us from Philadelphia.

RACHEL (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

RACHEL: I just wanted to say that either way, whoever, whatever party goes nominated, there's going to be great change for the youth for the United States. Basically, either we're going to have a female vice president for the first time or a black president for the first time, and it seems that both parties are striving for great change. And I'm a supporter for Barack Obama and I'm young. I'm 21 years old. But I absolutely believe that it's going to be a good thing either way, and I know that's kind of crazy to say, but either way, it's going to be good a thing for a change.

CONAN: Rachel, going to be a lot of change, it's something you're going to be able to tell your children and grandchildren about it.

RACHEL: Yes, it's a historical time no matter what, no matter who's elected. And I am a Democrat, but I do believe that there's going to be some good coming out of whoever gets elected.

CONAN: Rachel, thanks very much.

RACHEL: Thank you.

CONAN: That speaks, Reihan Salam, to - Rachel seems to embody a feeling among many young people who are less partisan than their elders.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah, I was - I found that really refreshing, but the one thing that does make me sad about this race is the way that both candidates really are - both tickets really are different and refreshing, yet they're forced to fit into same old mold. For example, Sarah Palin, sure, she's an Evangelical, she's a conservative, but she also was really a nontraditional figure. In Alaska, she wasn't thought of as, you know, hard-core conservative. She was thought of as someone who took on her own party, and was a reformer, and had this very different identity. She even praised Barack Obama from time to time.

But then in the glare of national politics, she's seen as this backwards caricature. Obama similarly, you know, is - I think that he is trying to be more meditative. He really wants to recognize the strength of some ideas on the other side, but then being the candidate of his party, he's forced into a bit of the box. So, I think these guys, you know, do have different perspectives. But I think the campaign forces them to be very traditional, very familiar, and frankly, very boring, some of the time.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, this is Brian, Brian with us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

BRIAN: You know, as far as the American moment, it's definitely a turning point in our history, and I just like to (unintelligible) the conversation with the fact that my parents are both Canadians, and I didn't share voting rights up until probably about 12 years ago. And in my home, I was never brought up Republican or Democrat, and matter of fact, I would have to admit that I was probably part of the normal or major herd, if you will, just like any other sheep, didn't know what it meant to vote one ticket or the other. I was one of those people that stood around the water cooler or the coffee machine and just kind of take that tidbits from colleagues and, you know, just - although that sounds good. I think I'll go that route.

But I think what the American people really need to do, and I think the young people are doing this, is really get themselves educated. Get online and research. Don't take the things that Fox News tells you or CNN tells you and really dive in and get the information yourself. For myself, I don't claim any party, I think that it's a little bit too dangerous to do that, that you just find yourself digging your heels in, in disagreement with friends, colleagues, family, just for the sake of, you know, standing up for your team. The other team could very well have produced an outstanding candidate.

And at this point in time I'm definitely going with Obama. He exemplifies class and integrity. And as far as the Sarah Palin thing, also for myself as an atheist, I am a degreed engineer and worked for a Fortune 50 company here in Michigan. So, I'm a numbers guy. I have a view that if you going to preach, for example, abstinence, you should be trying to practice what you preach. And at this point, I think this is probably a fear targeting the fear of many that, you know?

CONAN: So, you buy the hypocrisy argument.

BRIAN: Her daughter is now kind of the poster child of how abstinence doesn't work. Luckily, they are a family that have the means to take care of this child, but so many families that are the face of America don't have those means.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Brian mentioned that his parents are from Canada, probably worth mentioning that Canada's going to call an election probably later this week, and well, it's going to be starting and over before our election is. So, that's something that we're thinking of.

Mr. SALAM: Very efficient, those Canadians.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. Reihan Salam, at the other part of this is that this is an extraordinary moment because it is open on both sides. For the first time in many, many years, nobody is running as an incumbent or as a vice president attempting to follow up on the previous president's turn.

Mr. SALAM: Yeah, I mean, that one of only, you know, so many things that are so unusual about this race. You know, can you imagine if Dick Cheney were running in a Republican primary this time around? Holy moly, that would've really got them out in droves.

CONAN: I think he would have carried Wyoming.

Mr. SALAM: Good point, good point. Maybe Utah. Not with Mitt Romney in the race.

CONAN: Let's get James on the line. James is with us from Baltimore, in Maryland.

JAMES (Caller): Hello, gentleman. And I was - love the discussion, first off, and a couple of things I want to bring up. I am 25 years old from Baltimore, Maryland. I am Democrat - I call myself a Democratic-Independent. In the sense, I'm a registered Democrat because being in Baltimore, being a registered Democrat allows me to vote more often and have it matter than being a registered Republican. Being in the city and all, demographics will tell you that. But I have voted for Republicans in the time - I look at policy.

I'm leaning towards Obama in this case, but one thing I want to talk about, what this means to me is, I think we're starting a lot of ships. But you head on to a couple of calls ago about how the lines are starting to blur. And coming out of college, just relatively recently, I think we're starting to see some of that - well, you know, we call college socialism replaced with basically what is college libertarianism.

I wasn't one of the Ron Paul cult, as I call it. The cult of Ron Paul, but he was the guy who motivated a gigantic youth movement. All college campuses, it got a lot of discussion with ultra-fiscal Conservative base. And we look at Libertarian ticket, you know, fiscal conservancy with social liberalism, you start seeing the lines blurring. Now, I'm not saying, Bob Barr has a chance, you know. He's got about a Republican's chance in Baltimore but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You may be being generous.

BRIAN: Yeah, I'm being generous. Yeah, he has no chance whatsoever, but I think - and as much as the cult of Ron Paul got under my skin so much, because I'm also a history teacher, and an economics teacher - that's what I do now - it's an interesting discussion to see that change among the youth, in adopting more fiscally conservative viewpoints while keeping the social liberalism.

CONAN: And Ross Douthat, he's certainly right that the young people in the Republican Party did gravitate to Ron Paul.

Mr. SALAM: A lot of them did, although, I mean, it's interesting. In the Republican primary, there were, sort of, two insurgent campaigns. There was Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. And in a certain way, they were mirror images of each other. Ron Paul was running. as the caller just said, as sort of, you know, as a Libertarian and attracted a lot of support, even though at himself as an anti-abortion, from fiscally conservative, socially liberal conservatives. Then you had Mike Huckabee, who was sort of doing the reverse. He was, you know, running as more of an economic populist but also as a rock-rib social conservative, and he also sort of came out of nowhere and attracted a lot of youth support, actually, in places like Iowa and the South.

And what's also interesting, though, is that both Paul and Huckabee, even, you know, even though they didn't perfectly overlap ideologically, they had a similar populist style. And I think that's something you're going to see a lot more of, and I think the Internet especially, as one of the callers was talking about a couple of calls ago, is going to change American politics in ways that, you know, that do empower not only individuals but also sort of outsider candidates and you know, it sort of shakes out powers, you know, existing establishments within the two parties.

I think the big question with the Internet is, you know, it can be a tool for shaking up the system. It can be a tool, as somebody just said, for educating voters better than they've ever been educated before. But it can also be a tool for incredibly hard-edged partisanship, and you only have to go read what people on left-wing blogs are saying about Sarah Palin, you know, in the last two days to be reminded that the Internet, you know, giveth in terms of bipartisanship and good ideas, but it also taketh away in terms of, you know, frankly vicious rhetoric.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long. And we'd like to thank both of our guests for a good conversation, Reihan Salam, an associate editor at The Atlantic, and Ross Douthat, who's a senior editor at The Atlantic. Together, they are the coauthors of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." They joined us from NPR's headquarters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having us.

Mr. SALAM: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And of course, you can also listen to coverage of the Republican National Convention later today on many of these NPR stations, or you can go online and listen at npr.org. Tomorrow, we continue our series on This American Moment with former Ambassador John Bolton. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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