If you live in a college town, you might notice that the students are back on campus and getting settled in for the new academic year. This time of year might remind you of textbooks, football games and fraternity parties. Personally, it always takes me back to my time as a conservative student activist.
“Conservative student activist” might be something of an exaggeration, as in those days I wasn’t much of a student. While others were studying, I could be found camped out in the library – reading back issues of National Review, Commentary and Human Events. While others were focusing on materials assigned for their classes, I was conducting my own research on economics, culture and politics that would inform articles, pamphlets and student newspaper columns I would write as I tried to engage a political climate that ranged from hostile to indifferent in debate. I’m probably the only person who ever cut class to watch C-SPAN (I’m definitely the only one who would admit it). It didn’t prove to be the best strategy for earning a degree at the end of four years, but I did learn something about campus politics and the marketplace of ideas.
Often conservative college students find expressing their views on campus to be intimidating. With pretty much everyone else – the professors, the editorial pages of the university newspaper, the most outspoken students in their classes, the major student groups and activists – on the other side politically, it doesn’t take long to realize that conservatism is a minority viewpoint in academia. Even many courses ranging from women’s studies to labor studies all the way to such religion department offerings as radical liberation theology operate under fundamentally leftist premises.
So why would any student have the temerity to challenge this left-of-center consensus? Given the way that many campuses’ avowed non-conformists prize conformity, what could conservative students hope to accomplish? I was lucky. It was clear on our campus that very few members of the faculty or administration agreed with people like me, but they were tolerant and usually respectful of us. The campus was located in a predominantly Republican area, so however little they agreed with the conservative agenda it at least wasn’t alien to them. (The existence of conservative Republican alumni probably helped, too.) On other campuses, where copies of conservative publications are burned and speakers who challenge liberal orthodoxies are routinely shouted down while university officials tolerate politically correct intolerance, students aren’t so lucky.
Yet the campus left often uses its volume and intensity to exaggerate its numbers. In fact, on many campuses the bulk of students are not politically involved. Some of them are conservative but not interested in being hectored for their beliefs. Others have been turned off to politics by left-wing activists who blame them, their parents and their country for everything that is wrong with the world. Others still are apathetic or unaware. This great silent majority of politically unengaged students are open to persuasion to conservative ideas.
The key is to find ways to expose them to such ideas. Our College Republicans organization, the focal point of conservatism at our school, took many steps to bring people who might not otherwise be favorably disposed toward attending a political meeting into the fold. We held widely advertised social events so that students could enjoy themselves but also get to know us and what we stood for. Other student groups held special interest weeks related to their cause celebre’, so we followed suit. This gave us the opportunity to intersperse our serious message with fun activities.
We knew that a big part of our mission would simply be to counter the stereotypes many students had of conservatives. The left works overtime to present conservatives as intolerant, uncompassionate, ignorant and concerned only with money. We involved ourselves in charitable events (before “compassionate conservatism” was a fashionable buzz word), worked to reach out to groups that have not traditionally been conservative constituencies and otherwise tried to refute these stereotypes. In stark contrast with the left, we also poked fun at ourselves. During our special-interest Conservative Week, we held a Red Meat barbecue, watched “conservative movies” like Red Dawn and otherwise spoofed the liberal caricature of the right. It is impossible to imagine any comparable feminist or environmental group on campus doing something similar.
Our outreach efforts helped bring us unlikely members as well as reassure those who had always been favorably disposed toward conservatism. Our most active members included fiscally conservative business students, socially evangelical Christians and a great many people who had never been interested in or seriously thought about politics before they became involved with our group.
This doesn’t mean that our combination of politics and humor never fell flat. During the time period I was involved in conservative student activism, four Chicago men filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Hooters restaurant chain. They claimed they were denied the opportunity to work as servers alongside the buxom young waitresses who are the chain’s symbol. The EEOC initially wanted to press Hooters into hiring male servers and offering other remedies. Our College Republicans group decided to make a publicized trip to a Hooters restaurant as a statement against such bureaucratic imperiousness and political correctness run amuck.
The trip backfired. Feminist groups denounced the event, attended by both men and women, as an example of conservative misogyny. Students were not sufficiently well informed about the Hooters news story, so the feminists’ version of why the College Republicans went was more persuasive to many people without strong ideological commitments than ours. This seemingly insignificant event underscores a very important lesson for student conservatives: You must always remember that your organization may be the only representation of the conservative viewpoint that many students are exposed to for the next four years. You can either win them over or inadvertently reaffirm leftist stereotypes.
A mistake many conservative college students often make is to assume that if they are offending liberals, they are doing a good job. While this is probably true most of the time, the most important thing is how their message is being received by people are politically undecided. The main goal should always be persuasion, not ideological self-affirmation.
This is why symbolic and social events can make the message more appealing, but they are never more important than the message. Communicating that message involves engaging the left in debate. This means writing articles and letters to the editor for the campus newspapers, setting up alternative conservative publications (especially when the campus newspaper is not available as an outlet) and inviting prominent conservative speakers to campus. Our College Republicans group always made sure that one of the members volunteered to write a regular conservative column for the student paper, in addition to publishing a monthly newspaper of our own chock full of articles defending Reaganomics, the foreign policy that won the Cold War, limited government and family values. In our time, we had to confront the lies being told about our new speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the first Republican Congress in 40 years. Today, it is vitally important to have voices on campus challenging the lies being told about President Bush and the war on terror.
That’s why it is important that a conservative student publication not simply be an echo chamber. Too often inexperienced student writers simply recite familiar slogans in their articles recognizable only to one another. Instead, they should reach out to the concerns of the larger student body while addressing the arguments campus liberals are making against conservative policy on a daily basis. This may require subscriptions to major conservative magazines like National Review, The American Spectator and the Weekly Standard to develop a familiarity with the style and mechanisms employed by professional commentators. Dartmouth, Cornell and other universities have excellent student-run conservative publications that are nationally known.
Of course, it costs money to bring in speakers and start up new publications. Conservative student groups should not be afraid to seek out groups like the Young America Foundation, the Leadership Institute and Intercollegiate Studies Institutes for funding. Critics often like to say that the existence of such groups diminishes actual student involvement and injects a “vast right-wing conspiracy” into campus politics. This is untrue. The students may be benefit from funding and advice, but they still bear the responsibility for organizing and running these ventures. With the help of outside funding, we were able to run a statewide College Republicans convention, attended by a future and a sitting congressman and two statewide elected officials. Such an event could never have been funded out of student activities fees alone.
Moreover, it doesn’t take into consideration advantages the left has – or obstacles the right has – in obtaining events funding. Critics of YAF and ISI don’t complain about student services fees funding liberal causes through Public Interest Research Groups. And conservative groups are usually badly outnumbered. Most campuses have only one conservative or Republican club, possibly augmented by a separate pro-life group, while John O’Sullivan’s dictum that all organizations that are not explicitly right-wing become left-wing over time is doubly true for campus organizations. Theologically conservative religious groups aren’t always willing to help (Christianity is politically incorrect enough without involvement in controversies over abortion and gay marriage). Even in unbiased systems, liberal-leaning groups are likely to get the lion’s share of funding.
Like many people, I often look back and wish I hit the books harder as a young student. But I have fond memories of my times engaged with other young people in the battle of ideas, a rewarding learning experience in itself. It’s also one that’s still available to college students today. Seize it.