The election of Donald J. Trump, a populist candidate, signaled a radical shift in the Republican Party, making the future of conservatism an uncertain one. In the subsequent series of articles, I plan on laying out a few of the issues that conservatives will need to tackle if they intend to reclaim the base of the Republican Party.
Conservatism, as defined for this article, is a political ideology that emphasizes both economic and political freedom. It stresses a strong military and a limited government. It encourages free trade and condemns intrusive regulation. In the United States, it advocates a strict adherence to the Constitution and looks always for guidance in our nations founding principles.
According to Pew Research only 3 percent of Millennials identify as consistently conservative, while 13 percent identify as consistently liberal. This staggering statistic is evidence of the long-ignored issue which looms over the conservative movement: This country has become a breeding ground for liberal youth. The liberal agenda has captured our culture and has consequently dominated the imagination of young Americans. If conservatives want to have any chance of returning to the forefront of political discussion, they must work to win the hearts and minds of the rising generation of voters.
Filling the ranks of conservatism with this younger generation is absolutely crucial to ensuring any semblance of a conservative future in America. Not only would it gain us a new bloc of voters, but it would do something more profound. It would inject an energy into the movement that has not been seen since William F. Buckley Jr. first projected the philosophy into the foreground of political discourse. We saw the level of energy that can be achieved when we witnessed the aftermath of Trump’s election. The liberal protests, however perverse and disagreeable, demonstrated the exact sort of energy and devotion that our ideology so desperately needs.
In order to propel conservative ideology into the minds of the American youth, we must first recognize those factors that have led to the liberal takeover of this segment of society. We have to understand what makes their agenda so appealing to 18-29 year olds.
One of the most appealing things about liberalism is that it operates under the same, short, timeframe as the average college student. Buckley points out in his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism, that “the characteristic political concern of Liberalism is for the here and now.” The idea that one ought not to concern oneself with future difficulties is a very appealing thought to a young college student who wants to enjoy his time at school, but is all too aware of the looming uncertainty following graduation. Especially during the most anemic economic recovery in most of our lifetimes, the young college student who knows that there may not be a job awaiting him when he graduates, is going to gravitate towards a philosophy that urges him not to worry the long-run. Liberal rhetoric is formulated in a way that emphasizes only the short-run gains from a policy while suppressing any possible negative outcomes. A prime example of this is the new push to increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The left emphasizes the fact that an employee at McDonald’s would, with $15/hr, make a wage high enough to support his family; they suppress the fact that a minimum wage hike has the long-run effect of increasing unemployment. It makes sense that a young adult, who is uncertain of and fearful for the future, would align himself with an ideology that attempts to suppress fear of the dangers that lie ahead.
The notion that one might subscribe to an ideology because it shields one from the imminent difficulty of the future may sound illogical, but logic is not what drives a liberal’s political impulses. A liberal is driven primarily by the emotional aspect of decision making. They adopt the liberal ideology because it is easy to identify with on an emotional or even instinctual level. The left poses scenarios in ways that elicit a human’s innate desire to help his fellow man. A prime example of this tendency to frame discussion and policy in this way can be seen in the Affordable Care Act. When it was proposed, President Obama framed it as a program that would bring health insurance to those that were in dire need of, but could not afford it. Without thinking twice about the long-term ramifications of the program or the specifics of how such a policy might be put into action, millions of liberals jumped on board what they saw as a righteous initiative intended to help the less fortunate. In most instances, it is this technique, not any form of logic, that the liberal establishment uses to entice young people with good intentions, but insufficient experience to know any better. The liberal ideology has proved immensely effective at exploiting a young person’s desires to affect the world with positive change, and their constant search for a Utopian solution to the problems of the world.
There should be no doubt that liberal ideology and techniques have trounced the conservative answer to capturing the spirit of American youth. It is not that liberals have won this fight because their tactics or outlook is superior; they have won because conservatives appear not even to make an effort. If liberalism attracts youth, conservatism appears to repel it in the most appalling fashion.
The word conservatism itself conjures up thoughts of old, dull, suited characters that lack animation or even color. When most young people picture a conservative, they likely picture a black and white image of a 53-year-old man in a grey suit with an I Like Ike pin on his lapel. The conservative movement has a reputation for being stuffy and lethargic, in large part because it lacks vibrant, young characters. Where the left has among its ranks virtually every film, comedy, television and music personality to give fashionable sounding cachet to their ideology, conservatives have nobody even remotely capable of producing the sort of energy exuded by those on the left. The colorful cultural characters of the left constantly reinforce the “live for today” mentality so adored by younger generations, while conservative figureheads constantly warn of the long-run consequences of such behavior. So long as conservatives act like foreboding parental figures, they will continue to fail to elicit the adoration experienced by devil- may-care liberals.
While liberals act as if there are no possible negative outcomes to their “good-intentioned” policy, conservatives act as if every one of these policies will lead to the immediate destruction of the Constitution and the republic (I myself am often guilty of this). In his book, which I alluded to earlier, Buckley points out the dangers in this tendency for conservatives to decry tyranny and destruction at the drop of a hat, likening it to The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In continuing to cry wolf, Buckley says that “conservatives have cheapened the vocabulary of caution” and that we subsequently “lose our credit at the bar of public opinion or [are] dismissed as cultists of a terrestrial mystique.” Though our warnings are often right and justifiable, to somebody who does not know better and does not feel the effects of such loss in freedom or constitutional circumvention, these warnings appear unsubstantiated and paranoid. When we talk about football players like Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem as debasing national respect, we elevate it to the same level as something like Hillary’s e-mail scandal, which did more to degrade our national prestige than a million kneeling quarterbacks. When we do this, we lessen the significance of the important issues at hand. A person of youth and optimism looks at this continuous wolf-crying and is understandably put off. To him we look like the crazy uncle that the family knows not to bring up politics around at thanksgiving.
This all has to change. The Republican party has just won a presidential election and controls the House, the Senate, the majority of state executives and legislatures, and will be in a position to create a conservative supreme court. We must exploit the momentum we now have and begin to capture American youth and mainstream culture.
The obvious way to begin disseminating our ideology to young people is by having an active role in discussion on college campuses. It seems to me that established conservatives have simply ceded the entire system of higher education to the left. Conservative students at most universities feel very much abandoned by those older generations that share their ideology. It has gotten to the point where most conservative minded student simply keep their heads down to avoid becoming the object of ridicule by their boisterous, leftist, classmates. Thankfully the institutions necessary to change this destructive culture are already in place. Most major colleges and universities already have conservative minded student organizations like the College Republicans. Conservatives need to support these organizations in every way they can.
Conservative thinkers, writers and politicians need to put in the effort and reach out to these clubs, offering to speak at their meetings, support their club initiatives, or even just show interest in them. If they can do this, they will begin to inspire students to speak up and fight for conservative values. Once students feel confident in their convictions and assured that the establishment of their ideology supports what they are doing, they can start to rise up and assert themselves among their classmates without fear of ridicule. When conservative students gain confidence in themselves, it will become possible for them to start influencing their fellow students and begin the process of altering the mindset of college students to the conservative mindset.
The benefits of accomplishing this task are too many to count, but one of the most significant is a change in perception. The minute conservatism becomes popular on college campuses it will cease to be the philosophy of the old and decrepit and become infinitely more vibrant and youthful. Though their ideology may differ from that of a more traditional conservative, the alt-right movement has captured the sort of energy that young people gravitate towards. Rebellious inclinations, spurred on and, to an extent, directed by people like Milo Yiannopoulos and organizations like Breitbart have turned dissatisfied students into a colorful and animated movement in mere months. The desire for an alternative to liberalism exists on campuses and it yearns for an outlet. The conservative movement started by William F. Buckley desperately needs to follow his example by offering conservatism as the primary outlet for this desire to escape oppressive liberal campus culture.
While engaging students may be the work of established conservative thinkers, there are easier ways to fight back against the liberal manipulation that claims the ideologies of the unknowing. We can take back the language. The left has, over the past decades, made it a habit of altering terminology to gain sympathy for their agenda among those who don’t know any better. National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson gave an example of this change in terminology in his NRO article Enemies of Language when he pointed out the left’s slow transition from the term “illegal alien” to “undocumented immigrant” to what they now call simply “migrant.” Hanson points out that this transition began to occur as the previous terminology became “seen as counterproductive to the agendas of the open-borders movement.”
There is one incredibly simple way to combat this liberal usurpation of language. Ignore it. Use the word that most accurately represents the situation. If we as a group can prevent the liberal alteration of terminology from taking place, we can prevent the unknowing young students who are most susceptible to this form of trickery from being taken in. These students, who have not yet been gotten to by either side of the aisle, are the ones who we should focus on attracting.
It may prove hopeless to try to convince a liberal of their error, one cannot use logic to sway them out of their beliefs because, as I established earlier, they were not convinced by logic in the first place. Instead of trying to combat pure emotion, we should fight a battle that we can win. In every forum we should address the undecided youth who can potentially be swayed. The Pew Research poll that I cited in the opening paragraphs of this article indicated that 44 percent of Millennials are of “mixed ideology.” I have a nagging suspicion that this number is really an indicator that a huge percentage of Millennials have no political ideology at all. If this is the case, it represents an enormous opportunity to assert conservatism as the mainstream, and accepted ideology.
Taking advantage of our current situation, whether by utilizing our on-campus resources or by targeting the vast percentage of individuals who are currently undecided, is not only necessary to our future, but is perhaps the only thing that can preserve the conservative movement over the upcoming decades.
The road ahead is not going to be easy or fast. Though Trump’s election will help, this is a generational effort. It will take hard work and unity on all of our parts to transition the movement that has been largely overshadowed by Donald Trump and populism, back into the movement that propelled Ronald Reagan into office in 1980. It will take those thinkers who currently spend their time behind their desks writing, to join students on campus, encouraging them to assert themselves as the dominant ideology of universities. It will take every conservative-minded individual doing whatever they are capable of doing to fight back against the incursions of the left on the uninformed mind and to capture the imagination of the next generation of voters.
Not only do we have the unique opportunity to incorporate a new bloc of voters into the conservative coalition, we also have the chance to insert conservatism back into the mainstream. If we succeed we will be able to take pride in the fact that we made our great nation stronger and more free for years to come.
For the sake of full discloser, it should be recognized that I am a Sophomore at Villanova University and Vice-President of Villanova University College Republicans.
Follow me on Twitter: @FrankJConnor