Updated: Feb 26, 2019
Author: Angela Yang
With every turn of the page in the archives of human history, changing circumstantial context has periodically propelled shifts in popular ideology. Generation Z (“Gen Z”), the newest to step into the political scene as more of its members come of voting age each year, has branded itself the most well-educated and politically diverse group yet in American politics. Compared to their Millennial predecessors, Gen Z as a whole tends to identify as more economically conservative yet more socially liberal.
This leaves the country with an incoming voting body that, as demonstrated in the 2016 presidential election, leans more toward the Republican Party than any other, and these young conservatives are beginning to break the mold of the traditional GOP platform of decades prior.
Spencer Finkbeiner, the youngest delegate of the California Republican Party at 19 years old, developed his conservative values around the idea of free market opportunity. Watching his parents build their lives from the bottom up, he is a proponent of the trademark “American Dream” that grants every individual equal access to pursue their ventures.
Meanwhile, he believes gay marriage, a right older Republicans have typically resisted, is “perfectly fine.”
“The main point why I am a conservative is because no one should be able to interfere in your personal life, especially the government,” Finkbeiner said. “And I think marriage is one of the most sacred things, and I think that that’s totally up to the individual rather than any government agency—who they marry or who they love—so I don’t have anything against same-sex marriage.”
Support among Republicans for the legalization of gay marriage rose 27 percent from 2007 to 2017, while opposition also declined by a quarter of the party. Despite the climbing numbers, some younger Republicans do hold on to traditional marriage beliefs.
James English, 20, is a board member of College Republicans at Orange Coast College in California and an Orange County Young Republican. Since first discovering his interest in politics during his sophomore year of high school, English has worked for a fundraising consultant that has managed campaigns from the local to national level.
“I believe marriage is for one man and one woman,” English said. “However, society’s paradigm has shifted to the point where I don’t know if we can return to that norm, or sadly, what used to be a norm. And with that, I don’t necessarily think that my personal views should be imposed on everyone.”
The question of transgender legitimacy has also become an increasingly prominent issue in today’s political arena. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 80 percent of Republicans believe gender is defined by sex at birth. This relatively new point of contention is a nuanced one for Gen Z’s adult Republicans, many of whom hold the traditional majority belief while also being more likely to know peers who identify with a different gender’s pronoun.
Ben Keene, president of Orange Coast College’s Young Americans for Freedom, is among those who believe gender should be assigned by biology: “You’re only the gender that you’re born as. It’s just scientific fact.” It’s a reasoning Finkbeiner and English share, but this is where the clear-cut uniformity ends.
Transgender people should have the liberty to call themselves what they prefer, Finkbeiner said, but should not compel others to call them the same.
“It’s more about my freedom of speech. If I think that a woman who changed to a man is still a woman, then no one should be able to tell me to think differently,” Finkbeiner said.
When it comes to public restroom usage, he narrows the qualifications down to which gender’s physical features a person embodies. “I have no problem with people going over to another sex if they do the entire process and actually change over: either get rid of or change their sexual organs.”
English is also on the fence about where limits should be imposed to ensure all parties are comfortable. To English, perhaps someone who has undergone the physical transformation, whether through surgery or other means of self-expression, has earned the privilege of using the opposite sex’s restroom.
“Let’s say I was born as a male and I said today I’ve truly been a female all along… but I continue to dress and act as a man would, I don’t think I should be allowed to use the women’s restroom. However, if I either dressed as a female and acted as a female or underwent a transition, then I should be allowed to use the women’s bathroom,” English said. “I think it’s all about how people express themselves because regardless of how we feel about it, people perceive others based on how they express themselves outwardly, not what they say they are.”
Another issue that has taken center stage in recent years is the concern around climate change. A 2018 survey found that 26 percent of Republicans believe the planet is warming due to human activity and 72 percent of Republicans think policies geared toward environmental protection do not alleviate the problem.
Keene believes that although Earth’s climate is indeed changing, it is more a result of natural shifts in atmospheric condition than a consequence of human action. He is, however, a proponent of cleaner energy, as members of Gen Z have overwhelmingly become, though he aligns with the traditional GOP mentality that government regulation is not the path.
“I think that for the health of humans, obviously we should try to keep smog to a minimum [and] keep our environment clean. I think we should use practices for renewable energy,” Keene said. “But I think we should allow the private market to do it and not force everybody to do something like that. I believe that as technology advances, we will by nature have less emissions because if people like that, that’s exactly what the market is going to try to cater towards.”
While Republicans old and young still vary in opinion on the true cause, a new trend in thought is emerging: climate change is real, and it warrants action.
“It’s a scientifically proven fact; I mean, you can’t really argue with that. It’s a big issue for us, too, because even the slightest Celsius change in temperature of our Earth can lead to drastic changes,” Finkbeiner said. “I think that climate change is a thing that Republicans have to shift their policies to. I think that the government should handle it by encouraging people to go green, giving more subsidies to businesses and corporations that actually want to go into renewable energy, opening up jobs and researching development of new businesses to get that going.”
However, he added, whatever steps taken should not harm the development of small businesses and individual choice. Putting more faith in the private sector than federal bureaucracy to combat climate change has become a point of popular consensus on younger Republicans’ climate agenda.
“Steps should be taken by private entities and maybe mild government regulations in things such as fuel economy, but the change should start from the bottom up,” English said. “Companies that chose to ban straws are doing so voluntarily, not because of federal mandate. So I think that we should let local governments and innovation lead the way as far as that.”
Next, the most visible generational gap in the Republican party comes with the shifting societal standpoint on marijuana. It is no longer uncommon to catch a whiff of the herb on street corners and at house parties. As its prevalence continues to permeate social scenes, many new voters have grown up in communities where recreational marijuana feels normalized.
“This is where you’re actually going to have a split in the older party versus the younger side of Republicans, [because] the younger side of Republicans have no problem with it,” Finkbeiner said. “It’s not a lethal drug, and it’s a person’s choice.”
In Finkbeiner’s eyes, legalization of recreational marijuana is an opportunity. “We can make tax revenue off of it by taxing marijuana. You also have more economic spirit, like these new corporations are coming out into the open and they’re mainly focusing on marijuana. Huge companies are going public and they’re making a lot of money for the economy.”
Keene, meanwhile, holds the “very traditional view” that pot should not be consumed on a recreational basis, citing its hazards to human health.
“I’m Christian, and I believe in keeping a sober mind, and I believe that marijuana has a very negative effect on people, especially on adolescents,” Keene said. “I would say for the most part, though, I’ve met a lot of conservatives that are more okay with marijuana use.”
The eldest of this youngest generation have had only two opportunities to cast their votes, but even those yet not eligible to go to the polls are well on their way to becoming the most politically active age group in decades. Studies are still attempting to deduce whether this generation will veer more left or right in the years to come, but to lump Gen Z’s views in with the Millennials is to turn a blind eye to a wholly unique new constituency rapidly forming its own political identity.