Millennials don't really remember Ronald Reagan — and that's a problem for the Reagan-loving GOP

Reagan adulation is not a way to entice new voters or develop new ideas

Ronald Reagan
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the summer of 2004, when I was 16, Ronald Reagan died. Washington, D.C., was within driving distance of our home, so when my mom proposed we go see the former president lying in state in the Capitol, I was game.

But that experience is about the extent to which he features in my political consciousness. Since then, I've become more and more interested in politics and less and less interested in Ronald Reagan. It's not that I'm anti-Gipper — though I have been known to make a few Zombie Reagan jokes with each passing election cycle. It's just that fealty to Reagan is not the measuring stick I naturally reach for when evaluating a candidate.

I don't think this Reagan apathy is unique to me. I'm a decade older than 2016's first-time voters, who were born in — oh geez — 1998. When I was visiting the Capitol, they were getting ready to graduate from kindergarten. So if Ronald Reagan appears but dimly in my political consciousness, he's almost on par with Millard Fillmore for them.

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At best, Reagan might be a George Washington-type figure for some millennials: He's got some good quotes and we may have vaguely positive feelings about him, but when it comes to concrete policy decisions, Reagan fades into the background, eclipsed by more recent figures and considerations.

This may be due to the way high school history is taught, with minimal attention given to everything post-Marshall Plan. (I left an Advanced Placement history class with no idea who or what an Iran-Contra was.) But I suspect a more significant factor is simply the passage of time: Reagan left the White House 10 years before this election's new voters were born. At 18, that's more than half a lifetime. Add to that the breakneck pace at which the modern news cycle moves and you have a perfect recipe for Reagan's near irrelevance to the bulk of the younger generation.

No one at Republican headquarters seems to have really absorbed this fact yet, even though the voters who can remember Reagan are not the ones the GOP needs to worry about attracting.

Indeed, for Republican presidential candidates, appeals to Reagan's legacy are de rigueur. Donald Trump, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz are all eager to cite Reagan as the greatest president in recent history — even when that's not the question they were asked. Carly Fiorina published an effusive blog post praising Reagan on his birthday during her 2010 Senate campaign; Rick Perry echoes his speeches; Rubio quotes Reagan quoting obscure quotes. Rand Paul mentions Reagan often on topics ranging from taxes to Iran, though he has been willing to call out Reagan's intemperate fiscal policy.

Jeb Bush, to his credit, said in 2009 that Republicans should abandon the Reagan nostalgia for a more forward-thinking message. But so far his campaign isn't living up to that hype — Bush has even hired numerous Reagan advisers to his own team. Similarly, Mike Huckabee argued in 2011 that Reagan would not be elected by the modern GOP, only to announce a "Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II Tour" tour for pastors from early primary states. And Rick Santorum pointed out last year that Reagan is an outdated reference, but just two months earlier he'd all but claimed the Reagan mantle for himself.

And that's the heart of the problem: that there exists such an idea as the "Reagan mantle," and that it's desired even by Republicans who seem to get that Reagan may not be the best campaign icon in 2015.

This is bad marketing for an aging party that struggles to appeal to young people, but it's even worse for policy innovation. As Jim Antle has ably argued at The American Conservative, appeals to the idealized Reagan of the Republican establishment's memory have led to an excessively hawkish, unthoughtful GOP that values economic freedom while discounting civil liberties (a defining issue for millennials, who aren't exactly on board with Reagan's acceleration of the drug war, either).

Of course, political movements need motivational figures, and conservatives are particularly inclined to be inspired by and committed to the past.

But the invocation of Reagan in the Republican Party today is a malleable shorthand for "things we like," as the real Reagan's legacy is reduced to a myth of low taxes and aggressive foreign policy. As Richard Gamble writes, it is difficult to "point to any concrete evidence that the Reagan Revolution fundamentally altered the nation's trajectory toward bloated, centralized, interventionist government," and keeping Reagan around as a tired symbol of small government makes it similarly difficult to progress toward that goal — or capture the interest of the next generation.

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