The crisis of conservatism
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For all of the talk about Ronald Reagan in this primary, I'm worried that we're not living up to the mission he left for us. Conservatives will recognize his quote, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction," but what follows is often forgotten: "[We] didn't pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same."


Freedom was under siege in President Reagan's time. He knew how to fight for it and, fortunately for us, he left a playbook. He said we must "communicate those principles to the American people in language they understand" and speak to "every level of society, because the principles we espouse are universal and cut across traditional lines."

Fast forward to 2016. Are we fulfilling Reagan's charge? Too often, I see conservative leaders singing to their own choir instead of inspiring the next generation of voters with our principles.

As a young conservative Republican, I worry about the future of my party. The GOP's tumultuous nominating contest has forced existential questions onto the editorial pages and Sunday show roundtables. "What does it mean to be a Republican?" and "Where are Republicans going?" These questions exasperate conservative thought leaders week to week. As we weigh what it means to be a conservative, I find myself wondering what would have happened had I been born a few years later.

I'm a "middle millennial," born after Reagan's time but old enough to recall cigars in the Oval Office. In many ways, this gives me an advantage. I've learned traditional conservatism while rapidly expanding technologies have also given me unprecedented new opportunities to disseminate these timeless ideas.

"If it's Sunday, it's 'Meet the Press,'" or so I thought growing up. I was dazzled by conservative icons who made an eloquent case for freedom on TV programs. Today, smartphones empower individuals like never before. They make that argument all on their own. A smartphone is an argument for an open society and freedom.

I remember putting a mail-in subscription to National Review on my Christmas list when I was 12 years old, just to read the probing arguments made by my favorite conservative rock-stars. I turned the dial on our AM radio and waited for Rush Limbaugh's daily rebuke of Democrats. Both opened my eyes to a conservatism that fit the technology and the times and made our cause fun.

Young people today, myself included, would never dream of obtaining information those ways.

I am old enough to remember conservative principles the way they were expressed through traditional media, in traditional language. I am also young enough to understand where that traditional language misses the mark with my generation. Freedom is so wholly incorporated in a young person's life that it we take it for granted, like oxygen or Starbucks: We trust that it will always be there. My generation has moved beyond the boundaries of traditional expressions of conservatism. No one needs to tell a young person today the ability to call a car at any time of day from any location from your smartphone is freedom. It's an integral part of their lives. They just don't use the language of the Greatest Generation to describe it.

Millennial voters demand freedom in everything they do. They've never allowed anyone to tell them how to live, work, consume or do just about anything else.

Many of our elders spend barrels of ink complaining about my allegedly petulant, self-righteous, self-consumed generation. What they should understand is these are a bunch of freedom-loving people who are genuinely available to a conservative candidate or party. They don't just believe in self-government as a principle; they live it and require it every day.

On ABC's "This Week" a few days ago, Alex Castellanos struck a chord. He said: "I think a lot of the fault actually belongs to the conservative intellectual leadership of America. ... [W]e don't appeal to young people, we don't appeal to millennials, we don't appeal to young women, we don't appeal to minorities, we appeal to only cranky old white guys like me."

Needlessly true, but true nonetheless. An authentically conservative Republican Party would understand just how powerful an opportunity we have to extend our principles to the next generation. Young Americans are begging for it.

Should today's conservative leaders fail to understand, they will be called many things. "Reaganesque" will not be among them. President Reagan cautioned that should we fail to pass our values onto the next generation, we would find ourselves telling them in our "sunset years" about a time when America was free. For conservatives, this doesn't have to be our reality. In recommitting ourselves to reexpressing — not compromising — our principles to young Americans, we are all capable of building a modern and enduring movement together.

Smith is chairman of the College Republican National Committee.