When I was a high school freshman and volunteered on my first political campaign, I used to tell people I was a "Scoop Jackson Democrat." I barely knew anything about the audacious Washington State Senator, but I knew he was a hawk in the Democratic Party who ardently opposed communism - which I felt had to be evil, since the photographs in our history textbooks painted gruesome pictures of poverty and oppression in the Soviet Union. I was attracted to the idea that I could be a Democrat, which is the norm in New York City, but also stand up against tyrannical regimes that violated basic human rights.
These days, of course, the idea of a Scoop Jackson Democrat is a bit laughable. Politics is so polarized that moderates like Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have been all but eliminated. Even as young people like me increasingly identify as being politically independent - today, one in two millennials eschews both parties - Washington is increasingly divided into two camps, completely set on their pre-fix platforms. On the left, we get social equality, government spending, and a foreign policy of leading from behind. On the right, Republicans offer us social policies from the 19th century, hawkish foreign policy, and tax cuts for the rich. So much for moderation.
Ever since 2008, when the Democratic Party started toying with divisive rhetoric effectively blaming the rich for our countries economic woes, I started to flirt with the idea of calling myself a conservative. After all, I identify with conservative values: I believe religion helps strengthen our social fabric, strong families are the key to economic success (and the best method of fighting poverty), and that free markets are the best way to create a more prosperous future for America. Public policy ought to unleash human potential and respect our dignity as citizens; we should teach people to find work instead of reinforcing the idea that people are not responsible for their own futures.
Last week, I was invited by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to spend a week studying with some of their research fellows. I choose to enroll in a course about foreign policy, led by Fred Kagan who is famous for having advocated for the surge in Iraq, Vice Admiral John W. Miller, who led a discussion about U.S. naval policy in East Asia, and Katie Zimmerman, an Al Qaeda exert who spoke about the rise of ISIS.
Over the course of a week in the offices of a think tank well regarded as a bastion of conservative thought, I was presented with a strong moral framework for evaluating government policy - through the lens of happiness and Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Having spent four years of my life as a competitive debater, I tend to take most arguments with a grain of salt. At this point, I am almost hard-wired to look for their flaws. But frankly, the AEI leadership made a thoroughly convincing case about why young people today should be conservatives - because conservative values lead to stability and happiness, and this is ultimately the goal of government.
What really sealed the deal for me was a book distributed at the beginning of the conference. Political non-fiction can be heavy summer reading, but I found myself fascinated by Arthur Brook's The Conservative Heart, which is a case for why conservatism is inherently compassionate. This makes sense to me; if mechanization, for example, is rapidly creating inequality in our country, then our job should be retrain workers and help them find jobs, not to rail on Wall Street. The conservative approach here - deal with the root cause of the problem, not with how government can marginally improve a bad situation through cash payouts - is definitely better for the 99%.
But even while the AEI was tremendously successful in spreading its conservative message - and I think their mission of engaging young people from all sides of the political spectrum in public policy is important - the GOP has failed in delivering its own message.
The GOP needs to convince young conservatives that it is the party that will implement conservative policies and guarantee a more prosperous future for America. Right now, they're failing miserably at making that case.
First and foremost, Donald Trump is not a conservative. He is an authoritarian who is simply substituting blacks, gays, Hispanics, and Muslims as the scapegoats for America's woes, where Bernie Sanders blames the rich. Instead of talking about using public policy to solve economic problems - like a growing skills mismatch in our labor force, he too has joined the cry for appropriating wealth. Instead of appropriating wealth from the rich to help the poor, Trump will simply support his own cronies. That's no conservative candidate.
Second, the GOP as a party doesn't stand for conservative ideals. If conservatives support strong families, then they should be the strongest advocates for gay marriage. They should be all for giving the women the right to abort, since forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term is definitely not good for the family structure. They should be talking about how we can reform our national school system and higher education, since social mobility is important to the American dream. There can be no economic mobility if people don't have access to a quality education. If conservatives are all about human dignity and happiness, then they should be the first party to stand up for transgender rights and against police brutality. Certainly, when police officers target young black men, they are violating basic ideas of human dignity.
Even though the GOP masquerades as a party for young conservatives, all it stands for is the old regime - for doing things the way we used to do them. Republicans today aren't fighting for good public policy and conservative values. Instead, they are desperate to appeal to old white men who are scared of what the 21st century will bring.
The GOP is not the party for young conservatives. And it's certainly not a party that cares about our future. So I think I'm making the most consistent possible statement when I say: I am a young conservative and I'm voting for Hillary Clinton in November.
Disagree? Bring on the comments.
David Cahn is the author of When Millennials Rule: The Reshaping of America, which will be published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon & Schuster this August. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and lives in New York City.