Posted on August 27, 2004

The Right’s New Wing

John Cloud, Time, Aug. 22

Earlier this month, a group of students met in Washington to bash George W. Bush, debate the power of multinational corporations and hear a speaker who denounced the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and stricter airport security. A leader of these college kids calls them “the new counterculture,” but here’s the thing: they aren’t liberals. The 185 students were in Washington to attend the 26th annual National Conservative Student Conference.

Many of them think the President has betrayed them by signing bills fattening Medicare and the Department of Education. Though the students embrace small businesses built on enterprise, they criticize big ones for knowing no borders and observing no national loyalties. And while he is fringe even among those students, 40-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur Reginald Jones — who says the Iraq invasion was unconstitutional because Congress never declared war and who decries post-9/11 security measures as infringements on our freedoms — has become one of the most popular figures among the young right. His raucous seminar on the evils of abortion, taxation, the Democrats and “milquetoast” Republicans — as well as the pleasures of NASCAR — didn’t end until 2:30 one morning.

The world of young conservatives, then, brims with surprises — not least that just a few months after the Deaniac moment, college students are returning this month to campuses being transformed by the right. To be sure, the conservative movement has been growing among students for decades — at least since 1951, when God and Man at Yale by William Buckley Jr. became a best seller and helped spawn student-right groups across the nation. As a recent issue of the conservative Campus magazine points out, reporters rediscover the student right every few years, as if it were “very new and very strange.” In fact, the movement is very old and very powerful, run not by gangly kids but by seasoned generals of the right. These organizers have worked campuses for years, and — judging by their record-setting budgets and sponsorship of hundreds of campus publications, student groups and guest lectures — they have reached the height of their tactical powers.

Three main conservative groups have reshaped student politics:

— The Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a Herndon, Va., organization, founded in 1969, that sponsored 200 conservative lectures across the country last year (in addition to the National Conservative Student Conference). At many schools, those speeches have become the biggest events of the semester. Last year at Duke, for instance, YAF speaker Ben Stein, an ex — Nixon aide and former Comedy Central host, attracted 1,500 people, 200 of whom had to be turned away — a bigger crowd than the one that had come to hear Maya Angelou two months earlier. With its $13 million annual budget, the foundation — run by a former Reagan Administration adviser, Ron Robinson — is now the nation’s largest advocacy group devoted to student politics. (This YAF is not to be confused with another conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom, which flourished in the ‘60s and ‘70s.)

— The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) of Wilmington, Del., a 51-year-old group whose first president was Buckley. The institute spends nearly $1 million a year helping students publish conservative newspapers. Its Collegiate Network of papers now includes 85 publications, a record number for the institute. The ISI spent an additional $9 million last year on conservative books, periodicals like Campus and fellowships worth as much as $40,000 for individual students.

— The Leadership Institute, based in Arlington, Va. Led by former Reagan aide Morton Blackwell, 64, the institute had a record 3,562 graduates last year. The students, most of whom attend college or high school, learn about p.r., fund raising and direct mail; aspiring young pols get “candidate development” training. In its 25 years, according to Blackwell, the institute has trained some 40,000 conservatives — the movement’s field army — including nearly 200 who went on to become state legislators and more than 300 who wound up as staff members on Capitol Hill.

Because of the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when we think of college activism, we tend to imagine Kent State and braless young women. But today the left can claim no youth organizations as powerful as YAF, ISI or the Leadership Institute. One of the biggest young-liberal groups, the Sierra Student Coalition (an arm of the Sierra Club), has a budget of just $350,000 for 150 college chapters. There were once as many as 200 left-leaning Public Interest Research Groups at U.S. universities, but today only about half that number exist. Last school year, the 38-year-old National Organization for Women spent twice the amount it usually does on campus in order to publicize April’s feminist march on Washington, but the total, $500,000, was just 4% of Young America’s budget.

New, energetic liberal groups such as Students Against Sweatshops and the League of Pissed Off Voters have won some media attention, but it’s not yet clear whether they will thrive. By contrast, the College Republican National Committee, which atrophied to just 409 chapters in 1998, now lists active members on 1,148 campuses. The College Democrats of America say they have members on 903 campuses, 20% fewer.

Of course, as activists on left and right note when they hear such figures, the left doesn’t need to organize on campuses as urgently because universities have traditionally been hospitable to liberal inquiry. “There are thousands of Young America’s Foundations around the country for the left,” says Daniel Flynn, director of the Campus Leadership Program at the Leadership Institute and author of the new left-bashing book Intellectual Morons. “They’re called Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford . . . ”

Though all four of those institutions have prominent conservatives on their faculties, such professors remain in the minority. Just look at the academy’s political donations: according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 72% of university employees’ $16.7 million in contributions during this election cycle has gone to the Democratic Party. The figure for Harvard is 97%, and every penny of the $156,000 from the College of William and Mary has gone to the Democrats. Employees of the University of California have given more money to John Kerry’s presidential campaign than have workers at any other business or institution; Harvard employees are No. 2. (Full disclosure: employees of Time Warner, which publishes TIME, are No. 5.) George W. Bush has no universities (and no Time Warner) in his top-20 list of employee donations.

But while professors may lean left, many students are tilting right — especially toward that brand of conservatism known as libertarianism. According to a well-regarded annual survey sponsored for the past 38 years by the American Council on Education, only 17% of last year’s college freshmen thought it was important to be involved in an environmental program, half the percentage of 1992. A majority of 2003 freshmen — 53% — wanted affirmative action abolished, compared with only 43% of all adults. Two-thirds of frosh favored abortion rights in 1992; only 55% did so in last year’s survey. Support for gun control has slipped in recent years among the young, and last year 53% of students believed that “wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now,” compared with 72% 11 years earlier.

You might think that a general trend toward conservatism after 9/11 explains young people’s rightward shift, but according to the Council on Education numbers, students actually began reconsidering liberal positions in the ‘90s. (Support for gun control didn’t weaken until after 9/11, though.) Despite all those Girls Gone Wild (and now Guys Gone Wild) videos, young Americans are repositioning themselves not only on political but also on cultural matters. More than one-fifth of last year’s freshmen said they never party, twice the percentage of 1987. More kids today say they want a military career, and more hope to be “very well off.” We usually think of college students as more liberal than their parents, but on many political issues, today’s kids share the views of their parents’ generation — and on matters such as affirmative action and taxes, they are actually further right.

It’s important to note the liberal exceptions to this trend: kids are turning left on marijuana and gay marriage. Nearly 40% of first-year students now support legalizing pot (the most since the ‘70s), and an astonishing 59% of 18-year-olds think same-sex couples should be able to legally wed. (Only about 30% of all Americans do.) But in the context of the other numbers, those positions may indicate a libertarian rather than leftist orientation. The Libertarian Party, which advocates minimal government interference in people’s lives, has members on 306 campuses, twice the figure of 1997-98, according to James Lark III, a campus organizer and former party chairman.

Why the move right on many issues? Demographers say it has something to do with coming of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “If your formative experience is Ronald Reagan as opposed to John Kennedy, then that’s going to have an impact on how you think about the world,” says William Galston, a former Clinton official who now directs the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Today’s college kids were quite young when Reagan was President, but thanks to YAF, ISI and the Leadership Institute — all helmed by Reaganites — the former President has an outsize presence on campus. Former Reagan officials Edwin Meese III (Reagan’s second Attorney General), Jeane Kirkpatrick (his first U.N. ambassador) and Bay Buchanan (his first Treasurer) have all spoken on college campuses through YAF, and Reagan’s son Michael raises money for the group. In 1998 it purchased the Reagans’ old ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., and now brings 1,000 students there every year to bask in Reaganiana (look in the bathroom for the Liberty Bell showerhead) and study conservative thought at a multimillion-dollar conference center nearby.

At the National Conservative Student Conference earlier this month, the students cheered nearly every time Reagan was mentioned — which is saying something, given that the name of the recently deceased President was invoked constantly. The conference’s souvenir T shirt featured Reagan’s image and the words THE REAGAN REVOLUTION LIVES! On the first morning, when the students were invited to the podium to introduce themselves, several said the 40th President had inspired their conservatism.

No one mentioned Bush. Which brings us back to this year’s race. Although students are moving right on many issues, the President isn’t necessarily benefiting. In 2000 Al Gore beat Bush among 18-to 29-year-olds by only 2 percentage points, but recent polls show Kerry with a double-digit lead among the young. (The race is a virtual tie overall.) Of course, very few conservative students will vote for Kerry, but most of the kids who attended the conference didn’t seem eager to become field troops for the President either. As National Review editor Rich Lowry noted on the conservative magazine’s website the day after he spoke at the conference, “What was most notable about this year was just how many smart young conservatives out there seem to think that there are no important differences between Bush and Kerry.”

One student laid out a conservative case for Kerry: “When a Democrat is in office and proposes the same policies that Bush has proposed, Republicans act Republican and kill them,” said Aakash Raut, 23, a senior at the University of Illinois at Springfield, in a heated debate with pro-Bush students. “And you have actually more conservative government than you do if a Republican is in the White House.”

Raut says he will “probably” vote for Bush anyway, but he and other kids spent hours battering the President — his proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants (which they see as unfair to legal immigrants and dangerous at a time when terrorists may be sneaking across the borders), the increase in federal spending (which they fear will eventually lead to tax hikes) and his expansion of Medicare (which is an “entitlement program, something a conservative always opposes,” as Buchanan, sister of former presidential candidate Patrick, told the conference). Like her brother, Buchanan criticized Republicans for not doing enough to arrest the social changes wrought by globalization (multilingualism, low-wage immigration, outsourcing). “This is good for corporate America, which owns Congress, so they do nothing,” she told the students.

In some ways, Bush bashing from so-called paleoconservatives like the Buchanans is nothing new. Just as revanchist leftists fight with the New Democrats for control of the Democratic Party, G.O.P. traditionalists — America-firsters, Fundamentalist Christians — have long battled neoconservatives from the right.

But many of the new young conservatives smash these ideological bins. They define their conservatism on an issue-by-issue basis. While they care deeply about abortion, for instance, few students at the conference mentioned gay marriage. Roger Custer, the 22-year-old conference coordinator who graduated in May from Ithaca College in New York, illustrates this cafeteria-menu conservatism: he favors the Iraq war but thinks Bush should have treated our allies better; he wants abortion outlawed but backs civil unions for gays; he would abolish the Department of Education but would rather balance the budget than cut taxes. Custer enthusiastically supported Bush in 2000 but says he will only reluctantly vote for Bush this time.

So what binds the new young conservatives? What links the urban libertarians, the exurban social conservatives and the kids like Custer who can’t easily be labeled? After interviewing dozens of young conservatives over the past five months, I think the glue is more cultural than political: paradoxically, these kids see themselves as campus rebels. They believe they are “the new counterculture,” as YAF official Patrick Coyle says — ridiculed by liberal professors, shouted down by student leftists and betrayed by a Republican Party afraid of alienating moderates.

Listen to Martin Dawson, 22, who will be a senior this fall at Fordham University in New York: “The Republican Party is becoming what it criticized in 1994 — the party of Washington power, the party of Big Government, Big Spending and Big Business.” Even those who support the party and the President sound like outsiders. Says Alexa Moutevelis, a 20-year-old Washington and Lee University student who has Bush stickers on her car: “I’m a conservative because I’m antiestablishment.” Ohio University senior Clayton Henson, 22, uses similar language: “The left controls the campus . . . They are the establishment now. They are the reactionary ones.”

The well-funded national organizations backing the young right encourage campus conservatives to see themselves as oppressed minorities. “Young America’s Foundation alleviates the isolation so many young conservatives face,” says a brochure for the National Conservative Student Conference. Another YAF pamphlet says its speakers “energize students in the fight for freedom on campus against radically anti-American, leftist professors.”

Small wonder, then, that the students have started to mimic the left’s rhetoric of victimhood. A prominent student conservative — Charles Mitchell of Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University — urged conference attendees to return to their campuses and create “safe zones” for conservatives, who are, he said, “constantly under attack.” Antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, darkly warned that Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues — a collection of sketches about women’s sexual experiences that was performed on more than 600 campuses last year — has inspired “an army” of campus feminists whom she called “very elitist.” Sommers told the audience, “You have been marginalized. You have to begin to demand some kind of representation.”

Conservatives have even joined the push for campus diversity. A young-right group called Students for Academic Freedom is pressing states to adopt its Academic Bill of Rights, which would require colleges to promote “intellectual diversity” among their faculties, guest speakers and assigned authors. (Practically speaking, of course, such diversity would mean hiring more conservatives.) After a version of the bill was introduced in the Colorado legislature this year, the state’s four biggest universities agreed to examine whether political diversity is threatened on their campuses. Legislators in four other states have also introduced versions of the bill.

In the early ‘90s, conservatives called multiculturalism divisive and anti-intellectual. Now they use it to their advantage. “I tell [the students], ‘Use the word diversity, but make it about diversity of ideas. Use their language against them,’“ says Coyle. His organization even recommends that conservative students advertise lectures on race with flyers screeching “Where Are MY Reparations?”

Coyle defends YAF’s to-the-barricades approach as the only way to combat a liberal advantage. “Conservatives don’t control the faculty. They don’t control the administration. They don’t control the student government,” he says. Among the conservative students I have met over the past few months, nearly every one has offered a tale of antiright bias: half a dozen kids at different schools in California and New York told me their professors had derided President Bush in class. Others complained about the proliferation of programs in women’s studies, African-American studies — even labor studies — while conservative scholars such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek (both Nobel laureates) are rarely assigned.

In a notorious example of left-wing intimidation, the Leadership Institute’s Flynn spoke at a 2000 forum at the University of California, Berkeley, about his 38page pamphlet Cop Killer: How Mumia Abu-Jamal Conned Millions into Believing He Was Framed. Supporters of Abu-Jamal, a leftist writer on death row who has inspired an international movement seeking the reversal of his 1982 murder conviction, erupted in virulent protest. According to an article in Berkeley’s student paper, some of the demonstrators actually burned copies of Flynn’s booklet. The disruption got national news coverage, and an embarrassed student senate had to pass a bill declaring that Berkeley, home of the free-speech movement, still opposes book burning.

That protest was especially vicious, but conservatives say they are routinely heckled on campus. University of Michigan students shouted down Ward Connerly, a California businessman who has battled racial preferences, during a 1998 speech. (YAF often screens a tape of the event to “show students what they’re up against,” says Coyle.) Libertarian ABC journalist John Stossel, who regularly speaks at YAF events, was verbally attacked at Brown University in 1997 after raising questions about the legitimacy of a rape charge one student had leveled against another. “Get off this campus! We don’t want you here!” a student yelled at Stossel.

Even more disturbing, a website calling itself “an online resource for those on the front lines fighting fascism” has printed Coyle’s home address and phone number. “Pat is the one working diligently to divert your tuition and public tax money toward the radical, racist, right-wing club,” charges the website. Another part of the site seeks further information on its targets, including “Social Security numbers, automobile plate numbers, names and birth dates of spouse(s), children and friends.”

But YAF must also take some blame for coarsening campus dialogue. Coyle, an affable, prematurely graying 30-year-old who, like many of today’s college conservatives, cites Rush Limbaugh as an influence, travels the nation leading seminars on how to bring to campus speakers who will rankle liberals. “You want an event that will be remembered for weeks,” he told a group of students earlier this year in Santa Barbara. He then proffered some incendiary flyers that the foundation recommends as ads. “What does a woman REALLY want?” asks a flyer promoting a 2000 speech at the University of Delaware by conservative Michelle Easton. The answer: “Husband. Children. Picket Fence.” A 2001 flyer for an Ann Coulter talk at Cornell depicts the Confederate battle flag (Coulter, the angular, clamorous polemicist, is one of YAF’s most popular speakers). And a 1999 University of Nebraska flyer warns, “Man Hatin’, Abortion-Lovin’, Marriage-Despisin’, Gay Agenda-Promotin’, Biology-Loathin’ FEMINAZIS: You best BEWARE. You’re about to be exposed. BAY BUCHANAN is coming to town.”

Coyle also suggested strategies for handling “the left’s dirty tricks.” “The left loves to take over Q and A and ask endless questions,” he said. “You have to have your people in line to ask questions.” Coyle offered a couple of cons of his own: “You can bar signs at the door on grounds that they can be used as weapons. It’s kind of silly, but it works.” He also recommended writing letters to local papers — ”but don’t have all the letters come from the College Republicans. You don’t want it to look like they’re all from one group.”

Coyle then introduced Steve Hinkle, 24, a conservative activist from California Polytechnic State University, who gave this advice: “If people are protesting and angry and tearing down your flyers, it can be really intimidating, but it means you are doing your job. And no matter what, don’t ever apologize — for the speaker’s message, for the way you’ve advertised it, for the controversy . . . The left wants you to apologize, and if you do, you are ruined.”

Despite their victim routine, conservatives are making quick advances on even the most liberal campuses — and YAF’s millions are no small reason. Take Ithaca College. When foundation officials described it to me, it sounded like a suffocating gulag. I was told that a Bay Buchanan speech had been reported to the college’s Orwellian-sounding bias-related-incidents committee and that professors in the politics department openly sniggered at Republican kids in class.

You don’t have to spend much time at the college to see that liberals run the place. It posted a website after 9/11 devoted almost exclusively to critiques of the U.S. The site includes the text of a talk by Professor Asma Barlas, who chaired the politics department last year, in which she blames “Jewish groups” for “introducing modern forms of terrorism into the Middle East” and suggests that capitalism “provided the breeding grounds for much of modern day extremism.”

When I spoke with her in March, Barlas told me it was her department’s role to challenge students with perspectives they won’t get elsewhere. “If they are coming from a group who has a President in power, can they really claim to be oppressed and marginalized?” she asked. “Our strength is our ability to offer our students alternative perspectives.” Alternative in this case means liberal: with help from the local Republican Party, some conservative students surveyed the college’s professors and found 113 Democrats and seven Republicans, none of whom taught politics. When I asked Assistant Professor Charles Venator Santiago, who teaches an introductory politics course called Ideas and Ideologies, whether he assigned conservative thinkers, he responded, completely without irony, “I am teaching Hitler.”

But outside the radical pocket of that department, the Ithaca College Republicans — with YAF help — have begun to change the campus in the four years since Roger Custer founded the G.O.P. organization. “They are the most visible group on campus now,” says Braeden Sullivan, a former co-president of one of the college’s gay groups, BIGAYLA. “They don’t have the biggest group of people” — in fact, only about 15 students regularly go to Ithaca College Republican meetings — ”but they are definitely the most visible group, and that’s a big change from a couple years ago.”

Custer, a blond, round-faced Californian, first attended a YAF conference in 1999, when he was still in high school. Afterward, he followed the organization’s playbook to the letter. During black-history month his freshman year, for instance, he brought black libertarian Reggie Jones to campus. Barlas perfectly played her role by refusing to help fund the hip-hip promoter’s speech, even though her department was paying for other black-history-month speakers. Her reasoning was that Jones “does not, from all appearances, support . . . the vision that gives this month its political meanings.” Custer was then able to accuse Barlas of trying to limit the scope of African-American dialogue. A campus debate was joined, and Jones (whose travel expenses were paid by YAF) drew 200 people.

The following year, Custer used a churlish ad from his sheaf of YAF samples to help create a crude flyer for a Bay Buchanan speech, also partly funded by YAF. “Feminazis Beware,” the ad blared. “Your Nuremburg is coming.” The campus erupted as only campuses can. Protests were held; tears were shed; one kid left the board of the Ithaca College Republicans in protest.

During Buchanan’s speech, a co-president of a campus antihomophobia group became enraged when Buchanan told protesters, “You need to get a life. Get a sense of humor. Feminazi is a fun word.” The student, Shelley Facente, tried to report the statement to a campus police officer as a “bias-related incident.” The cop refused to take her report, citing free-speech protections, but her attempt to bring the statement before an administrative board became a national story. The college was savaged in the conservative media. Today the bias-related-incidents committee is all but defunct — ”we’re re-evaluating the committee,” says college president Peggy Williams. The Ithaca College Republicans consider its demise one of their greatest achievements.

Is the college better off because of YAF’s infusion of ideas and money? YAF has surely helped enliven the campus dialogue. But it has also helped embitter it. Custer is described even by political opponents, including Facente, as a considerate, smart kid who listens to all sides. “My goal is to get more conservatives, and I have found the best way to do that is by working with people rather than against them,” he says. But did the “Feminazis” flyer accomplish that goal? “Well, no, that specific flyer did not,” he admits. “But on the other hand, because of the controversy, there were 400 people there . . . You try to find a balance between getting more conservatives through various discussions and just” — he pauses — ”pissing people off.”

As YAF and the other student-right groups fight their battle for the soul of the campus — and as liberal students respond — that balance gets harder to strike. But the next time you think your kid is leaving home to get a liberal education, think again.