Conventional knowledge would have it that liberals have a lock on young voters and that university culture stifles the evolution of conservative identities on campus. But as Amy Binder and Kate Wood make clear, young conservatives are actually a formidable force behind the scene, utilizing a range of styles and strategies to get out their message. Binder and Wood’s new book, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, looks at the power that campus culture has in developing students’ conservative political styles and shows that young conservatives are made, not born. Recently they blogged for Election 101 about the dynamic yet often unrecognized role of GOP, college-aged conservatives in Election 2012. Read on:
Amy Binder and Kate Wood
In any presidential election year, attention turns to the question of how political parties can mobilize young voters. While we have become accustomed to the argument that demographic shifts may mean the demise of the GOP, college-aged conservatives—and the formidable forces behind the scenes working to energize them—should not be underestimated. With the Republican Party’s nominee finally in place and the focus firmly on November’s election, staff at the Young America’s Foundation (YAF) are preparing for their biggest event of the year: the National Conservative Student Conference (NCSC), to be held July 30 to August 4 in Washington, DC.
While this late summer conference is not the largest meeting attended by conservative collegians (that distinction belongs to February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where annually 2,500 of 6,000 attendees are students), the NCSC is on the dance card of many right-leaning undergraduates. Here students can rub shoulders with celebrities of the right (including, in recent years, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Newt Gingrich) and have “bull sessions” with one another into the wee hours of the night in the dorms of George Washington University.[i]
What kind of political messages should students expect to hear when they get to this year’s gathering? Although the theme of the 2012 NCSC has yet to be revealed, we can get some clues from last year’s marketing:
Tree hugging. Gun taking. Wealth hating. Leftist loving. Sound like a nightmare?…
For most college students, this is an accurate portrayal of their professors and peers and the left-wing ideas they espouse. You can learn the best ways to stand up for and advance conservative ideas on your campus just in time for the start of your fall semester![ii]
As might be gleaned from the 2011 web-based call-to-arms, the NCSC encourages right-leaning students to see themselves as persecuted on their college campuses and to embrace a conservatism that the YAF calls “aggressive.” [iii] Students are urged to “constantly challenge leftist ideas” and leave behind any inklings for “passive” conservatism, by which the organization means “working for candidates, running voter registration drives …essentially a philosophy of accommodation [emphasis added].”[iv] Aimed at “Joe Average” [v] conservative students in public universities and other less prestigious institutions (according to the former YAF conference organizer we interviewed for our book) the conference encourages a more provocative style of conservatism which aligns in many ways with the style we saw practiced by college conservatives in a non-elite university system. Not incidentally, this style militates against what some of our interviewees considered to be boring, or “lame” campaigning.
In its place, NCSC speakers advise those in attendance to scout out the battle lines on their campuses and to head for them with gusto: to stage eye-popping activities like “Strong Women Shoot Back” in response to “liberal” Take Back the Night events, to ensnare their professors and peers with “gotcha” politics, and to avoid anything that looks even remotely like political compromise or philosophical détente. Getting under the liberals’ skin is good, according to YAF materials and NCSC speakers; working across the aisle—a more civilized style like the one we saw on the more elite campus we studied—is frowned upon. To wit, speakers who have already agreed to appear on this year’s program include former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, and the youngest celebrity in the YAF stable, 28-year-old Jason Mattera, author of Obama’s Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation. Now this is not to say that the NCSC deals exclusively in the provocative style: As in past years at least one slot on the 2012 program will be reserved for someone with more civil political tastes and predilections. This year that role will be played by Professor Robert George of Princeton’s Department of Politics, who will no doubt ratchet down the rhetoric—at least for the half hour he has the floor.
But this tension between civilized discourse and provocation—the two dominant, and more or less mutually exclusive, conservative styles we uncovered in our research—may be particularly pronounced during the 2012 political cycle. After all, eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney spent months taking a beating from YAF speakers Bachmann, Santorum, and Gingrich for being insufficiently conservative, and has had to repeatedly turn, with limited success, to more provocative attacks to build up his conservative bona fides. With the presidential election less than five months away, what will happen when Romney chooses to move back to the center to be palatable to non-right wing voters? Will the young conservative cadres at the NCSC accept this about-face and recognize that they should probably seek to persuade their peers rather than shout them down? Or will recent events like the failure to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and the precarious economic recovery empower conservative provocateurs to double down and refuse to compromise? Whatever the outcome, the young conservatives mobilized by the NCSC will likely play a considerable role. They will be fired up and ready to go.
Amy J. Binder is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton). Kate Wood is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
[i] “Bull sessions” is what Roger Custer, a former YAF conference organizer, called students’ conversations with one another (interview with author, 2008).
[iii] See Coyle and Robinson (2005, 1).
[v] Interview with Roger Custer, 2008.