"Most kids my age bristle at the word 'conservative,' and I don't blame them." Advice from a college Republican
If the election results told us anything, it's that the GOP has some serious soul searching to do. On paper, Mitt Romney's history of accomplishment towered over President Obama's train wreck of a record, so his loss seemed nearly inexplicable. But Mr. Obama carried his key groups so easily that Republicans should give him props for such a feat— and start taking notes.
In politics, as in life, perception is key. The Chicago machine and the Democratic National Committee as a whole have perfected the art of marketing, even when they've got nothing to sell. They're like a used-car salesman who pushes lemons on unsuspecting drivers and never gets caught. Democrats can home in on Latinos, blacks, single women, young voters—and have them chanting "Four more years!" before they know what hit them.
I happen to be one of the latter, a college student at a time when youth is a hot political commodity. Most kids my age bristle at the word "conservative," and I don't blame them. The right has done nothing to welcome young people.
If Republicans hope to win in 2016 and beyond, they need to change everything about the way they sell themselves. They're viewed by the 18-24 set as the "party of the rich" and as social bigots. That harsh, flawed opinion could be rectified if Republicans started presenting their positions in a different way. The GOP is like a supermodel who has been doing photo shoots under fluorescent bulbs without any makeup. But fix the lighting, dab on some foundation and highlight her good side, and she can take the most attractive picture.
My age group is one pocket of voters who Republicans should be carrying with ease. Youth is all about rebellion and freedom and independence—things the Democratic Party preaches but doesn't deliver. Behind their clever one-liners lurks a government shackle waiting to be slapped onto the wrists of every young voter they ensnare.
The left proudly shouts "stick it to the rich," which naturally draws the rambunctious college crowd into its fold. But Democrats fail to mention how broadly they define the rich—or that in reality, they want to dip into everyone's wallets, not just Bill Gates's.
Shame on Republicans for not seizing the opportunity this time around. They could so easily define their brand as the true advocate of rebellion; a "stick it to the government" movement in the spirit of the 1960s hippie wave.
It wouldn't be a smoke-and-mirrors, bait-and-switch trick either, like what goes on across the aisle. Republicans truly are the party of a less intrusive ruling class. Frame the Republican fundamentals—tax less, spend less—as a fresh populist approach instead of Grandpa's adage, and the party is back in business.
Another leg up that the left has is its claim to the moral high ground. The party of pro-choice, pro-gay has such a hold on young people because those are issues they can care about easily. Not many 20-year-olds can hold a coherent conversation about Social Security reform or double taxation, but all of them can argue passionately for gay rights.
As a member of this all-important demographic, I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda. That's the way the country is moving—so just deal with it. Modernize and prioritize.
Though it may be painful, though it may be costly at the polls in the short run, Republicans don't have a future unless they break up with the religious right and the gay-bashing, Bible-thumping fringe that gives the party such a bad rap with every young voter. By fighting to legally ban abortion, the party undercuts the potential to paint itself as a rebel against the governmental-control machine.
Embracing a more liberal social agenda doesn't require anyone to abandon her own personal values; it's possible to keep faith and the party too. But the evangelical set essentially hijacked the Republican Party in the 1970s; now we need to take it back. Thawing the icy attitude of our most vocal, radical voices—including the raucous right (a la Limbaugh)—could let a fatally fractured party put the pieces together again.
The GOP won't survive if it doesn't start courting young voters. Simple math dictates that the Republican Party can wrest power away from the left only if it builds an army of fresh young members into its base. Democrats are the ones doing that now.
Ms. Westwood will be a sophomore at George Washington University in January.
A version of this article appeared November 12, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Advice From a Lonely College Republican.