It is easy to infer that the Republican Party -- as the more religious and culturally conservative party -- is doomed in the long run. But long-term political trends don't apply that neatly. America is not becoming Sweden -- though Vermont tries its best. Many millennials hold traditional moral views, as well as politically conservative ones. (A solid majority believes that government has gotten bigger because it has done "things that people should do for themselves.") Ideology will continue to vary greatly by region. The defining issues of one decade can be overwhelmed or invisible in the next.
But Republicans and conservatives will be forced to make some adjustments over time.
The millennial shift will influence the way conservatives argue. The tone of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum on social issues during the recent primary season -- itself a throwback to the early days of the religious right -- will not be an option. Republican rhetoric will need to be oriented toward shared moral aspiration instead of harsh judgment.
This trend will influence the coalitions that Republicans build. It will make less and less sense to aggressively alienate groups of voters holding socially conservative values -- Latinos in particular -- based on other issues. Lost ground among younger, unmarried voters will need to be gained somewhere.
And the generational shift will inevitably influence the fights conservatives choose to make. Even a significant portion of millennials who regard homosexuality as immoral support gay marriage out of a commitment to pluralism. And arguments in favor of pluralism have a tremendous advantage in America. In much of the country, social conservatives may need to choose a more defensible political line -- the protection of individual and institutional conscience rights for those who disagree with gay marriage. It is also a commitment of genuine pluralism to allow those with differing moral beliefs to associate in institutions that reflect their convictions.
The immediate political influence of cultural debates is overestimated. But the impact of a generational shift in cultural attitudes is only beginning.
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