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The Rise of the Campus Neoconservatives - and how to fight back.

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that a group of wealthy Democrats were looking into starting a liberal talk radio program. For years, the liberal elite has shrugged off and mocked Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as nonsensical wingnuts with little ability to influence American political life. All this time, they've neglected to realize that the majority of Americans, even the majority of American voters are easily manipulated. Rush Limbaugh has a following. And he's not just speaking to his ditto-head choir. Thousands of average-joe, middle-class Americans are brought into the Republican Party daily by Rush-like talk shows, the Fox News Channel and other elements of the right-wing media. This media influence has given Republican activists a powerful organizing and recruiting tool that Democrats have failed at and neglected until now. Finally, hopefully, we are getting a clue.

But Republicans aren't just targeting established media like television and radio; one of the new targets over the past several years has been college campuses. Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine wrote a front-page story on how these conservative / Republican organizations have sprung up, literally, overnight on campuses across the country:

As with college conservative movements in the past, the recent wave has been fueled and often financed by an array of conservative interest groups, of which there are, today, almost too many to keep straight: Young Americans for Freedom; Young America's Foundation; the Leadership Institute; the Collegiate Network; the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. These groups spend money in various ways to push a right-wing agenda on campuses: some make direct cash ''grants'' to student groups to start and run conservative campus newspapers; others provide free training in ''conservative leadership,'' often providing heavily subsidized travel to their ''publishing programs''; others provide help with the hefty speaking fees for celebrity right-wing speakers. Through these coordinated activities, these groups have embarked in the last three years on a concerted campus recruitment drive to turn temperamentally conservative youngsters into organized right-wing activists. From Maine to California, students have taken up the offer -- even at such lefty bastions as Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Students at Howard University, a black institution in Washington, have started a group that has been referred to as the ''hip-hop Republicans.'' The Campus Leadership Program has by their own count helped set up 256 conservative campus groups in less than three years. The College Republican National Committee, a group that mobilizes students to campaign, has tripled its membership since 1999 to an all-time high of 1,148 chapters.

For the first time in memory, there is an organized Republican presence on nearly every major college campus in this country. And the face of these new Republican activists is changing as well. No longer are they dominated by the establishment elite, but rather the new Republican ranks are filled with middle class kids:

Influenced as much by the mood and mores of MTV as it is by the musings of Allan Bloom, today's movement has shaped itself around a new demographic of young right-wingers, one that includes a heavy contingent of women and that draws some of its fiercest ideologues from the middle class. Having spread beyond traditionally conservative hotbeds like Dartmouth, it's a movement that operates in an atmosphere that did not even exist when Buckley and D'Souza were undergraduates: campuses governed by speech and behavior codes introduced more than a decade ago. A result is a new breed of college conservative, one poised to inherit the responsibility of shaping the Republican Party in the years to come.

Now, I would hardly call these new Republican activists the "Hipublicans" as the New York Times refers to them. They may be the changing face of the Republican Party, but good grief, they look like a bunch of nerds to me.

Still, the threat to Democrats from active Republican organizations on campus is very real. The New York Times gives two key reasons for the rise of conservative activism on campus in the past couple of years: A reaction against perceived liberal political correctness on college campuses, and a renewed sense of patriotism as a sequelae to 9/11, with a sense that college campus liberals have tended to promote anti-American attitudes:

Here's where the left has unwittingly helped to energize the conservative movement. Visit any college campus today, and you're struck by the forces of what the conservatives call overweening political correctness that have seeped into every corner of life. Same-sex hand-holding days, ''Vagina Monologues'' performances, diversity training seminars, minority support groups, ''no means no'' dating rules, textbooks purified of gender, racial or class stereotypes -- for all their good intentions, these manifestations of enforced tolerance can create a stultifying air of conformity in college life. Hence the cries for ''individual responsibility'' and ''freedom of speech'' that are the leading slogans of today's campus conservative movement -- a deliberate echo of the left-wing Free Speech movements of the 1960's and a direct appeal to the natural impulse, on the part of young people, to rebel against the powers that be…

A jump in club enrollment post-9/11 was not unique to Bucknell. According to Bryan Auchterlonie, the 24-year-old executive director of the Collegiate Network (a program administered by I.S.I.), the terrorist attacks helped to galvanize right-wing students across the nation. ''Students are upset with what they see as anti-Americanism on campuses,'' Auchterlonie says. ''Patriotism is big now.'' It's a patriotism that the national college movement has pushed to the fore as an issue that can win the sympathies of kids who are not overtly political. ''We handed out red, white and blue ribbons on the anniversary of 9/11,'' Charles Mitchell says. ''I didn't think anyone was going to take them. We ran out in half an hour.''

Both reasons for the emergence of campus Republican clubs give Democrats good reason to worry. The political correction on college campuses is something that liberals have embraced for a long time. We need to balance the desire to make students feel safe and welcome, with the ability to preventing unnecessary political correctness in the name of tolerance and diversity. We can trash Fox News all we want, but stories like these are all too common on college campuses, and are perhaps the biggest reason why liberalism is getting a bad name on college campuses. On the other issue, patriotism, Democrats need to find a way to retake the flag. That's a probably an even larger challenge, and I'll expound on it later.

Here's why Democrats ought to be worried. Not only have college conservative clubs tripled since 1999, but that Washington conservative elite has noticed, and are funding these guys:

''We know we're turning the tables,'' says Manny Espinoza, the public relations director of the Leadership Institute's Campus Leadership Program, ''and we know it's frustrating the other side, because they know it's their stuff and now we're using it.'' Indeed, the Collegiate Network, which distributes some $200,000 a year in publishing money to 58 student newspapers, issues a handbook, ''Start the Presses!'' which explicitly counsels its conservative charges to ''loosen up,'' to, in effect, get in touch with their inner Abbie Hoffman. ''Don't strive to be thought of as 'serious' and 'respectable,''' the handbook counsels. ''On campus, those words equate to 'irrelevant and ineffective.''

At the University of Texas, we certainly have our share of conservative organizations with national funding. The YCT (Young Conservatives of Texas) are quite active in conservative and Republican causes. We also have our own libertarian Republican monthly newspaper, Contumacy. No consistent Democratic alternative exists. Oftentimes, the editor of the Daily Texan is a liberal, but never is a consistent progressive Democratic message presented. Two years ago, the editor of the Daily Texan was a liberal, but in no way was he consistently Democratic in his editorials. Last year, a Libertarian served as editor. Sure, we agreed on some issues, like opposing the invation of Iraq and the attack on civil liberties, but the editorial page also did some nutty things, like endorsing the Libertarian opponent to Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), and calling the income tax illegal. The libertarian Republicans have their own paper, undiluted by divergent opinions. Us liberals, on the other hand, have to settle for letters to the editor campaigns. Why? Because wealthy conservatives understand the value of providing students a conservative message on college campuses. Wealthy liberals too often just send their money into congressional committees that run ads on issues like prescription drugs and social security that don't do much to help the Democratic Party with anyone under 50 (not to mention college students). Democrats are taking their base for granted. We expect students, minorities and labor to do the heavy lifting come election time - the blockwalking, phone-banking, etc., but we're still acting like it's the 1960s, while Republicans are finally getting a clue, and realizing that it takes not only money, but "elbow grease" (as Travis County Justice of the Peace Herb Evans would call it) - a solid ground game in conjunction with the air war to win. Republicans did it in 2002, while Democrats waited for our 2-4 point turnout bounce we can usually expect on Election Day to take us over the top - well it didn't.

So, how do Democrats respond to the neoconservative campus challenge? Well, first lets understand who these folks are:

As a management major concentrating in marketing, [Bucknell sophomore Allison Kasic] sees the importance of selling a new brand of conservatism to female students. ''There's the old stereotype of the WASP-y country-club wife or the Bible-study mom from the Midwest,'' Kasic says. ''But that's not what conservative women are anymore.'' Kasic, instead, points to ''stiletto conservatives'' like Hoff Sommers and Coulter. ''We have role models now,'' she says. ''Hip, strong women who exude the message: 'I don't need hand-holding just because I'm a woman.''' Kasic herself plans to be a working woman when she graduates (''I'm no soccer mom,'' she laughs; ''I don't even like kids''), but she respects women who choose a different path -- to be homemakers, like her own mother. ''Conservatives are inclusive in a way that liberals are not,'' she says, voicing a central theme of the Independent Women's Forum ethos. ''We say that women can be executives or stay-at-home mothers.'' Kasic extends this notion to the abortion debate. Herself an anti-abortion Catholic, she says that the Republican Party today nevertheless supports candidates who espouse the right to abortion. ''But the National Organization for Women has never supported a pro-life candidate,'' she says, as proof of the left's narrowness and the right's ''diversity'' (a term the conservative movement has deliberately co-opted from the left)

Clearly, there's some flawed logic in Kasic's argument. She ought to take a look at the Texas Republican Party Platform and the length in detail to which it goes in opposing funding to Republican candidates who oppose the Platform's rigid anti-choice stances. Or, perhaps, she ought to take a look at Republican congressmen - under Tom DeLay's leadership, there's an extremely low amount of diversity of opinion tolerated (not to mention that the caucus is about 98% non-Hispanic White). Whereas, just looking at the Texas Democratic Congressional delegation, there's extremely broad ideological diversity from liberals like Shelia Jackson-Lee and Lloyd Doggett to conservatives like Charlie Stenholm and Ralph Hall (not to mention tri-racial diversity). Texas Republicans with the lone exception of Ron Paul, tend to vote in lockstep on most every issue under Tom DeLay's command.

The college campus neoconservatives tend to have a libertarian streak to them as well, often as a consequence of today's American culture:

Today, most campus conservatives who hope to be effective won't dress like George Bush or Dick Cheney. The idea is to dress like a young person. When the Bucknell conservatives assemble for their weekly meetings, they look like a typical, if all-white, sampling of American undergraduates, which is to say, there are plenty of ragged T-shirts, backward baseball caps and frayed jeans in the room…

But the difference between the college conservatives of 20 years ago and today goes deeper than dress. Many members of the Bucknell conservatives club, for instance, endorse same-sex unions. Corey Langer recently wrote a [Bucknell's conservative student paper] Counterweight article supporting gay marriages. This is a far cry from D'Souza's day, when gay males were termed ''sodomites'' in The Dartmouth Review. In part, the Bucknellians' openness to gays and lesbians can be attributed to the strong streak of libertarianism that runs through the club -- a conviction that the government should stay out of any and all aspects of life, including the bedroom. But you can't hang out long with the Bucknell Conservatives and not form the opinion that their tolerance on issues like homosexuality goes beyond libertarianism…

Like the rest of their generation, they've been trained, from preschool onward, in the tenets of cooperation, politeness and racial and gender sensitivity. As much as they would hate to admit it -- as hard as they try to fight it -- these quintessential values have suffused their consciousness and tempered their messages…

For Mitchell, the goal is to persuade the politically undeclared students who make up the largest percentage of the college's undergraduate population -- a group he estimates at some 75 percent of all students -- that they are, in fact, already part of the movement. Though they don't necessarily think of themselves as Republican, the stance they take on individual issues -- taxes, abortion, affirmative action -- gives them a conservative identity. And being a conservative can be cool and, as Mitchell puts it, not ''just something that wacko people in Alabama do.''

So, these neoconservatives are much more difficult to pigeon-hole than the "paleoconservatives". It's much more difficult to paint them as hypocrites than it is of those who preach small government, but in turn oppose abortion, homosexuality and other social issues, where social conservatives want government interference. In fact, the most contoversial issue on the UT YCT public forum was DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). As with Bucknell, UT conservatives are divided on their stance on gay rights.

So how do we combat these young campus neocons? I see three keys to the fight. First, we must present a comprehensive agenda on the issues that is relevant to student concerns. Second, we must reform our message to avoid politcally correct elitism, and transform our image into one of patriotism (not pro-Bush or pro-war, but pro-America). And third, we must have a venue in which to compete. We need funding for newspapers on college campuses promoting a Democratic message to students.

  1. Above all, Democrats must focus on the issues. I agree wholeheartedly with Howard Dean, that we must present a clear and coherent Democratic agenda:

    We are not going to beat George Bush by voting with the President 85 percent of the time. The only way that we're going to beat George Bush is to say what we mean, to stand up for who we are, to lift up a Democratic agenda against the Republican agenda because if you do that, the Democratic agenda wins every time.

    Pundits give lots of reasons why students and other young people don't vote. Many students haven't yet made up their minds about who and what they support. Others are too busy to pay attention, or don't care about politics. Many believe that elections don't matter, that one vote makes little difference and that both parties are the same. As I mentioned earlier, Democrats won't win student votes by focusing primarily on prescription drugs and social security. We need to focus on issues that students care about. Conservative students hope to divide unaffiliated students on issues like taxes, abortion and affirmative action. We must make a clear and coherent case on those issues, but focus even more on a Democratic agenda for students. We must counter the Republican attack on abortion, by presenting a compassionate pro-adoption, pro-choice, pro-woman message. Use the neoconservative words like "independence" and "freedom" against the neocons on the abortion issue. Independence and Freedom are represent liberal values, not conservative ones. Affirmative action must be explained to White students as a positive force, giving them access to a greater diversity of thought than would be accessible without affirmative action. Understanding diverse racial perspectives gives all students an advantage. Again, use the neoconservative code words against them. Finally, with taxes, we can begin to explain what being a Democrat is all about. Republicans say they are the party of small government, but they're leading us further into debt than ever before. We, the youngest voters today will suffer the greatest consequences of the Republican's irresponsible tax cuts. We will likely be paying interest on the debt caused by these tax cuts for much of the rest of our lives. In fact, the Republicans are raising our taxes just at the point when we'll start to earn significant amounts of money.

    We can focus on issues like education and health care. In Texas, we can point to tuition deregulation and how the Republican legislature is balancing the budget on the backs of students. The legislature says that they haven't raised taxes, but what do you call outrageous tuition hikes? Is that not a tax on students? Of course it is. And the Republicans did it. We Democrats can point to programs like CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) to demonstrate the positive impact that government programs can have on people's lives. Many of these children would never have an opportunity for health care from families in poverty without the program. Should they suffer in the name of a free market economy? Many conservatives think so. Democrats should also focus on the environment. Democrats should adopt Dick Gephardt's "Apollo Project" for energy independence. We need more bold ideas like this to energize otherwise apathetic voters. Let's take the "hipness" away from conservatives. Lets make liberalism sexy again by promoting innovative ideas. Candidates should focus on these issues. Another issue was [2002 Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor] John Sharp's proposal for using state lottery revenues to pay for the college tuition at state universities for students with a B-average or better in high school. Georgia does it, and the program ought to be national. Democratic students should fight for the program's inclusion in our state party platforms.

    Last year, I lobbied the Texas Democratic Party Platform Committee to include a plank in the platform calling for placing a voting student regent on the Boards of Regents of each state-supported four-year institution of higher education. In last fall's election, we got our gubernatorial candidate, Tony Sanchez to pledge to appoint a student to the Board of Regents, and we ran ads in the Daily Texan promoting the Democratic Party position. I think it helped. Next year, I'll fight to get a plank included opposing tuition deregulation. We should never allow the campus neoconservatives to define us on the issues. Instead, we ought to shift the focus. We can define ourselves, then work to define them. Every time a leading Republican (Trent Lott, Rick Sanatorum) has a bigotry eruption, ask the campus neoconservatives what they think. Force them to either distance themselves from their leadership, or defend the indefensible. It's a win, win situation for us. Democrats are the true party of fiscal conservatism. Even neoconservative leaders like Andrew Sullivan have begun to realize this fact. The Democratic Party is quickly becoming the party of fiscal responsibility and social liberation, while the Republican Party is rapidly losing its reputation and creditability on fiscal responsibility. We're right on the issues, we just need to present our agenda and fight for it.

  2. After defining the issues, it's critical that we formulate a winning message as well. We must shed the label of political correctness that often turns young liberals into young conservatives. David Brock is a prime example of how thousands of college liberals experience alienation with the left from the "doctrinal leftism" often present on college campuses. He writes in his book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative:

    I had chosen [to attend] the University of California at Berkeley specifically because of its long tradition of liberal political activism, beginning with the famed Free Speech Movement of 1964 and culminating in protests against the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Yet my first year on the Berkeley campus was not all that I had anticipated. Rather than a liberal bastion of intellectual tolerance and academic freedom, the campus was - though the phrase hadn't yet been coined - politically correct, sometimes stiflingly so. Many on the faculty, having come of age in the 1960s, adhered to a doctrinaire leftism to which I had never been exposed. Though it is a blunt overgeneralization, the sociology department seemed to me to be filled with socialists, the philosophy department with devotees of Michel Foucault's relativistic deconstructionism. History tended to be taught from the perspective of New Left revisionists, who blamed the Cold War on the United States, In English literature, the Western canon, composed of "dead white European males," was out of fashion.

    Even more shocking to Brock, was how Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's United Nations ambassador was treated when she came to speak at Berkeley:

    …No sooner had she begun speaking than several dozen protesters, clad in black sheets with white skeletons painted on them, bolted from their seats, repeatedly shouting, "U.S. Out of El Salvador," and "Forty Thousand Dead," a reference to political assassinations by death squads linked to the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military junta… a protester leaped from his seat just offstage and splashed simulated blood on the podium. After several more attempts to be heard with no help from the hapless dean, Kirkpatrick curled her lip, turned on her heals, and surrendered to the mob.

    The scene shook me deeply. Was the harassment of an unpopular speaker the legacy of the Berkeley-campus Free Speech Movement, when students demanded the right to canvass for any and all political causes on the campus's Sproul Plaza? Wasn't free speech a liberal value? How, I wondered, could this thought police call itself liberal? … For the rest of the academic year, a controversy raged in the faculty senate and within the board of regents… over whether the campus administration should have done more to secure Kirkpatrick's ability to speak freely. The few outspoken conservatives on the faculty, and the Reagan regents, raised their voices in support of Kirkpatrick's free speech rights. The liberals seemed to be defending censorship.

    And thus, a young idealistic liberal became a radical conservative firebrand. Brock's story is all too common, and campus liberals ought to go out of our way to prevent demonstrations such as the one in Berkeley. We should never be afraid of free speech, because we're right on the issues. As for the so-called "forced political correctness" campus events like the "Vagina Monologues", diversity training and minority support groups… I don't necessarily see them as a problem. The Vagina Monologues are excellent. I think that the diversity programs in freshmen orientation are important as well. Many students come from very homogeneous backgrounds, be it from small towns, urban ghettos or posh suburbs -- many college students have never been in school with many people of a different race, religion or known anyone of a different sexual orientation. These programs are beneficial. However, I do think that any diversity-training program should stress respecting diversity without forcing anyone to embrace it. There's a fine line there, and sometimes liberals have a tendency to cross it. Finally, liberals sometimes need a dose of common sense. Don't ban a pork barbeque because it might offend vegetarians - make sure that a vegetarian alternative is offered, or forget about it. Never should we try and impose censorship or "free speech zones". It makes it look as if we have something to hide. We don't.

    There's also the patriotism issue. And that's one area of the Democratic message on campuses that has failed miserably. Republicans have it easy. Their message is simple, clear, succinct and to the point: Support our troops, Support our president, Support our country. You can remember it, you can put it on a bumper sticker or t-shirt - it's idiot proof. And the Democrats message? "Well, we support our troops, but the war was unjustified and illegal and Bush lied about it, but the Iraqi people are probably going to be better off now, but we should have given Saddam a chance to disarm, and gone in with United Nations support and a broad coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies, and where were all those weapons of mass destruction that we were supposed to find anyway?" Kinda leaves you confused, and forget about trying to put it on a bumper sticker. And of course, that's just the anti-war Democrats - as a party we never had much of clear, coherent message at all. While we were protesting in the streets, the College Republicans were holding "Support our Troops / Rally for America" rallies. While we were crafting anti-war resolutions, the Republicans handed out American flags. Do I regret the choices we made? No. But there has to be a better way. Democrats have to find a way to take back the flag. We don't have to sell out our values, or support unjustified wars, but we should remind people that we're proud to be Americans. It may sound gimmicky, but there's lots of little things we can do. Give out free flags. Take a lesson from the UT chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas - who host a campus celebration of Texas Independence Day each year. Doing something like that could go a long way towards preventing us from being painted as anti-American. We love America. We need to show it.

  3. Finally, we need support. The Republicans have the Collegiate Network and multiple other organizations funding their efforts to write newspapers and spread their message. Democrats in Washington need to realize that on many college campuses, there is a conservative message being spread, without a sensible liberal message to counter it. We can't win without the resources to spread our message. Some wealthy beltway Democrats ought to start funding a similar organization for liberal student organizations and publications. Unless that happens, I fear that Democrats may lose an entire generation of voters. Now is the time for all of us to act.

Posted by: Byron L.
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