“Whenever I go to conservative events on campus and tell people I’m gay, no one seems to mind. But whenever I go to gay events on campus and tell people I’m conservative, everyone throws a hissy fit.”
A friend of mine had sounded these words, or something to their effect, after attending a conservative-oriented meeting my freshman year of college. The gathering was constituted by Students for the War Against Terrorism (SWAT), an ad hoc club formed after the September 11 attacks. While there were certainly non-conservatives involved with the group, most were undoubtedly aligned to the right of the political spectrum. My friend had apparently felt less accepted (for her political preference) by the gay-rights community, most of who had presumably tilted to the left, than she had felt accepted (for her sexual preference) by conservative activists.
I recently harked back to this story while reading John Colapinto’s thorough but misguided article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Young Hipublicans.” According to the author, campus conservatives have adopted the language and posturing of the left to appear more attractive to their generational counterparts. These tactics have been mandated from above, or more specifically, from well-funded Right-Wing activist groups in Washington. Therefore, the ostensible “tolerance” of campus conservatives, a buzzword on the left, is more a consequence of strategy than sincerity. While the influence and efficacy of the Leadership Institute, ISI (Intercollegiate Studies Institute), or YAF (Young America’s Foundation) mustn’t be underestimated, these organizations shouldn’t take the cake either. As a campus conservative myself, I could attest to the fact that it’s a bit more complicated than that, and a lot more interesting.
For starters, most of the college conservatives I know have never heard of the D.C. groups mentioned in Colapinto’s article. In fact, with the exception of the College Republican leadership itself, most of the self-proclaimed conservatives I know aren’t much concerned with conservative or Republican politics at all. My gay conservative friend wasn’t a political science major, but a science major, and she is currently getting a masters in entomology. Since she likes the idea of government staying out of peoples’ business, she’s voted Republican and attended a few conservative get-togethers here and there—but that’s about as close as she’s gotten to becoming a GOP acolyte. Another buddy of mine, a Sri Lankan American, has become enthralled with foreign policy ever since reading about the trials and tribulation of his family’s native land. He just happens to like the Republican foreign policy platform more than the Democrat’s. Another friend was orphaned when he was a little kid, and believes to his spiritual core that one must ultimately rely only on oneself, an undeniably conservative virtue. And two other fellows I know, one an African-American and a devout Christian, and another Persian-American and a devout Muslim, both appreciate the invocations of God and morality coming from the right, and simply vote where this takes them. In other words, for most of the “Hipublicans” I’m familiar with, it’s the conservative or libertarian ideas that have appealed to them, not the conservative politics or politicians. That’s why a lot more of them are clued into Jonah Goldberg’s NRO (National Review Online) than, let’s say, Morton Blackwell (God bless him). As to them being hip…well, I guess they just happen to be hip.
But it’s the ideas part that is of import. For Colapinto, campus conservatives have softened the (supposedly harsh) ideas of the right with a language of the left. Young conservatives now speak of “diversity,” “progress,” “tolerance,” and even at times, “liberalism.” But, quite frankly, Colapinto has it precisely backwards. When the conservative ideologue speaks of diversity, he is not giving a nod to the left, but speaking in the name of our founding fathers, who understood that diversity is the fount in which productive competition springs. When the young conservative alludes to progress, he has the freedom-loving passion and commitment of Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln in mind, not the nihilistic ramblings of the academy. When my conservative peers and I ensure the tolerance of a fellow gay Republican, even though we may still oppose gay marriage, we are not putting on a charade, but abiding by our truest Lockean principles of civil discourse. And when we call for the preservation and perpetuation of liberal ideals (as many of conservatives have appealed during the Iraq debate), we are calling for limiting the state and expanding self-governance—not the other way around.
In sum, campus conservatism hasn’t hijacked the left: It has taken the words of the left more seriously. Being conservative, it has reclaimed, and thus conserved liberalism in its purest form. That’s a big news story. And Colapinto missed the mark.