Whenever the subject of young people who have the audacity to eschew political liberalism comes up, it’s obligatory to quote Georges Clemenceau (though often in the guise of Winston Churchill): “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brain.”
Put me down squarely in the heartless category. I was cheering for Ronald Reagan by the time I arrived for kindergarten. When I was in high school, I knocked on doors for conservative candidates — in Massachusetts — and let the local Republican Party dress me up in an Abraham Lincoln costume and march me up and down the street for the annual Fourth of July parade. In college, I was active in a variety of conservative causes and busied myself with penning right-wing screeds for the campus newspaper.
So I know a little bit about the young conservative crowd. Some prefer a fogeyish, counter-countercultural image, donning blue blazers with brass buttons and other formal attire appropriate for standing athwart history at any age. These are the kinds of people who sign their names with initials and Roman numerals.
But most of them would blend in pretty well among other people their own age. These are precisely the teen-aged and twentysomething conservatives that ideologically dissimilar observers just don’t completely understand. For example, the New York Times created the whole “hipublicans” phenomenon when it revealed that normal college students who lean right can be found in fairly large numbers.
LAST WEEKEND, THE GRAY Lady took another look at the young right engaged in a fascinating discussion on the direction of American conservatism on the occasion of William F. Buckley’s retirement. The conversation involved differences on the right over the role of the federal government domestically and in the world, the war in Iraq, social issues and the fate of the libertarian-traditionalist coalition cultivated by conservatives since the days of Frank Meyer.
It was an illuminating if inconclusive look at the challenges the conservative movement faces. I would love to think that this kind of soul-searching is the norm among young conservatives and has percolated into the consciousness of students on the right. But if the fundraising appeals I occasionally receive from collegiate conservative groups are at all representative, I must conclude that at least the latter is not the case.
Far from charting a course for a “post-Buckley future,” to pinch from the Times‘s headline, many of these young conservatives seem fixated on concerns that have been evident since Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951. They recount anecdotes about the antics of leftist professors, publicize voter registration statistics showing Democrats to be wildly overrepresented in most faculty lounges and otherwise complain about the difficult lot in life that belongs to non-left-wing students.
The academic left surely has a lot to answer for, but I personally find this focus troubling for several reasons. The first is subjective and by no means scientific: This portrayal of campus life is largely alien from my own experience as a vocal conservative at a school where most people were left-of-center or indifferent.
Faculty lefties occasionally gave me grief about my political views, which they rarely shared. But many of these people also encouraged me, aided me in my (at best intermittent) studies and did me favors like writing letters of recommendation. The relationships between liberal educators and conservative students that I’ve encountered were not mainly adversarial.
I also worry that some campus conservatives are developing a persecution complex and treading perilously close to appropriating the rhetoric of self-identified student victim groups. One of the things that always differentiated right-wing student groups I was acquainted with from other university political activists was a sense of humor. These ragtag bands of young Tories, evangelical Christians and supply-side business students not only rejoiced in ruthlessly skewering PC niceties, but they also joyfully poked fun at stereotypes of themselves. If this sounds insignificant, try to imagine campus feminist, environmentalist or gay-rights groups doing the same.
Above all, I’ve come to wonder why we on the right give the university left-wingers the satisfaction of worrying about them as much as we do. The intelligentsia has wrecked many things in our country, but outside of a few disciplines I don’t think they have much long-term impact on their students’ political views. Indeed, there are examples where their reach is being surpassed even by the campus right: Ben Shapiro, only 20, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of an exposé of the academic left currently zooming up the Amazon charts. How many of his leftist tormentors from UCLA command even a fraction of his audience?
None of this means that university politics are unimportant or that conservatives have achieved anything approaching a level playing field. And maybe my assessment of a campus political scene I am no longer part of is missing something important. But it seems to me that the intellectual heirs of the modern conservative movement face greater challenges than the political composition of the typical college English department.