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Reagan at 100: A mentor for young conservatives

Democrats had FDR and later JFK to lionize, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a modern Republican with more continued popularity than The Gipper.
Image: Former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, poses in his office in Los Angeles in 1990
Former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, poses in his office in Los Angeles, in this Feb. 2, 1990 file photo.Bob Galbraith / AP File
/ Source: Politics Daily

Hang out with some young conservatives and it won't be long before you find them talking about Ronald Reagan. This is noteworthy because anyone under the age of 22 was not even alive during Reagan's White House years, and those under 25 would not have any personal recollection of his presidency.

Reagan was popular with younger voters when he was president, which made sense. He was the aspirational candidate with big dreams who ran against a Democratic president who complained about "a crisis of confidence" and "a growing doubt" among the American people. So, it was easy for young conservatives to like Ronald Reagan more than Jimmy Carter. But why do so many of us like him more than George W. Bush? What is it about this man that continues to inspire young conservatives so many years later? In light of Reagan's 100th birthday on Sunday, I asked a few young people that question, and have developed a few theories.

First, I think it's fair to say young people tend to be more romantic and idealistic than older folks. They long to be inspired. They want to believe in something grand. They admire "revolution." Reagan tapped into this mood. (His presidency was unofficially dubbed the "Reagan Revolution.")

For modern conservatives who feel today's leaders lack toughness, Reagan has also aged well. For Alyssa Bonk, a 25-year-old from Delaware who works at a conservative organization in Washington, D.C., Reagan was "proof that young conservatives don't have to waiver on their beliefs or 'squish' out on the issues in order to build political consensus and make a difference based on conservative principles."

Reagan believed in grand things — ending the Cold War on our terms, for example — but he spoke in unpretentious language. When critics complained that Reagan saw simple solutions to complex problems, The Gipper rejoined that there were indeed simple solutions, just not easy ones. Asked long before he became president how he thought the Cold War would ultimately resolve itself, he gave this reply: "My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?"

Most people my age probably don't know that quote. But they sense this trait in Reagan. Lindsay Souza, a 24-year-old regional field coordinator for the conservative Leadership Institute, told me she credits her parents' conservatism more than Reagan's for her political views. But she quickly added that she is inspired by "Reagan's eternal optimism and unwavering belief in American exceptionalism."

Reagan also benefits from some nostalgia for the 1980s. In retrospect, the 1980s were a time of peace and prosperity — a much simpler time than the 1970s — and a much more thriving time than today.

As Kristin Lybbert, a 21-year-old junior at Brigham Young University, told me: "Americans want to see the current economy flourish again like it did when Reagan was president. Though I was born the last year of his presidency, I've been taught the importance of his works both domestic and abroad and I understand the impact of his leadership on this great nation."

Based on his age when he took office, Reagan seems an unlikely figure to appeal to youth. At 69, he was the oldest elected president in American history. And when he ran for reelection in 1984, he won in a landslide, capturing the under-30 vote over Walter Mondale by 20 points.

His continued popularity with young people suggests that among this cohort age is more about attitude than about a chronological number. So is being cool. I don't mean to trivialize Reagan's accomplishments, but young people like things that are cool, and Ronald Reagan, with his movie star looks, his high style, his ranch, and his quips, was very cool. This may not be the noblest reason to support a candidate, but it's a fact of political life. Ask Democrats about Jack Kennedy and Barack Obama. They, too, tapped into the "cool" factor. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter? Not so much.

As Tony Listi, a 24-year-old graduate of Texas A&M University, put it, "Reagan inspired us at a young age because his style was youthful, regardless of his age. Politics will always belong first and foremost to the young." Here, too, Reagan has aged well (as evidenced by the intentionally ironic "Viva La Reagan" T-shirts).

Other young people — some of whom were once liberals — identify with Reagan's own political transition.

"I discovered Reagan as a young liberal in high school. I began reading and listening to his speeches, and I was enamored with his transformation from Democrat to Republican," said Matthew Hurtt, 23, a copywriter for a conservative fundraising firm.

Finally, young people, perhaps more than other generations, value the ability to communicate. And Reagan wasn't called "The Great Communicator" for nothing. "Out of all of the conservative talking heads and politicians in the last few decades, he has been the most capable of explaining the principles of conservatism in a way that is easy for anyone to understand," said Hurtt.

For all these reasons, Reagan remains immensely popular among young conservatives. Democrats had FDR and later JFK to lionize, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a modern Republican with more continued popularity than The Gipper. I'm part of Generation X, and I certainly didn't grow up idolizing Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. For today's conservatives, Ronald Reagan still looms large.