The New College Radical: Conservatives Who Vote
Libertarianism is in at college, leaving young right-wingers feeling left out.
Usually, they feel like the outcasts of their college campuses.
But for one week here in Washington, they were the darlings of the Republican establishment.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia addressed their gala dinner - and received their new award, the Newt Gingrich Vision and Leadership Award."Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi addressed their luncheon at the Capitol. Other conservative headliners - including Lt. Col. Oliver North, Bay Buchanan, and anti-affirmative action guru Ward Connerly - imparted their wisdom to the group.
It was enough to make the 120 assembled young conservatives at the annual convention of the Young America's Foundation (YAF) stand a little straighter and feel a little less lonely.
"Campuses are overrun with liberal thought, and they came here to find out how they can fight back," says Melissa Moskal, a staffer at the Herndon, Va.-based group and a senior at George Washington University here.
No one is claiming that conservatism among the young is on the rise. If anything, say experts, libertarianism is the reigning ideology: keep the Republicans away from our personal freedoms and keep the Democrats away from our wallets.
But for the YAF crowd, Conservatism with a capital "C" rules. They are, without exception, against abortion, against homosexual rights, and for unbridled capitalism. When TV personality Reginald Jones declared that public education - "government schools" - should be abolished, the crowd roared with approval.
In Reagan's footsteps
Ronald Reagan is their philosopher king. And soon they will be able to walk, literally, in the great communicator's footsteps. With private donations, YAF bought the Reagans' multimillion-dollar Rancho del Cielo in California to be the center of YAF's Ronald Reagan Leadership Development Program. Nothing at the ranch will change, not even the furniture.
Some of the young people gathered here are so conservative, they've quit the Republican Party for being too liberal. "Newt Gingrich talks one thing and does something else," says Jim Logue, a student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a member of the Conservative Party.
But most of them were sticking with the GOP, at least for now. Some are working on campaigns for the fall elections. Some are active in their local chapter of college Republicans. Others prefer to focus on one issue, such as the fight against abortion.
Emily Allen, a junior at Indiana University in Bloomington, sports a little pin with two tiny feet, the badge of the pro-life movement. When she started college, she decided to revive the campus pro-life group, which had gone dormant. She and a small cohort of anti-abortion activists protest at the student health center and organize seminars.
She's also found she can be a maverick simply by voting. "On ... the day of the state primaries, only six people showed up to vote ... at the dorm. Six people! That's out of 1,000 registered."
For the Republican Party leadership, groups like YAF, which has 12,000 people on its mailing list, represent the future - or at least part of the GOP's future - at a time when the party is anxious to keep its conservative wing from splitting off altogether.
Conservatism as ministry
"The conservative movement in this country has done a very good job of nurturing people along," says Michele Mitchell, author of "A New Kind of Party Animal," a book on the politics of young adults. "This group is their protges."
From her meeting with the YAF conventioneers, Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick got the sense that they're somewhat "apostolic" in their approach, "more looking at conservative ideology as a ministry, not as a springboard to public office."
College Republican groups, in contrast, are more wrapped up in party activities than ideological debates, says Ms. Fitzpatrick.
But for Republican and Democrat, the youngest of the Generation-Xers are a group with a giant question mark hanging over it.
"The fact is, no one has a lock on young people, because they don't turn out to vote," says Fitzpatrick. "So many more are libertarian now that it makes them up for grabs for both parties."