We Need to Fix Campus Conservatism

by Avi Woolf
April 22, 2019
Featured Image
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It’s a  movement rich in tactics and poor in goals, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.

In 1951, William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, a biting critique of the political and spiritual atmosphere in Yale University, establishing the right’s fierce love-hate relationship with America’s institutions of higher education.

On the one hand, the right recognizes that the universities are – or should be – bastions of deep inquiry into the human condition and institutions serving to form the political, business, and cultural elites of the country. Indeed, almost all the thinkers and pundits on the right, whether they be classically conservative or ideologically populist, possess a university degree of some kind. Even Donald Trump went to Wharton.

On the other hand, the very same thinkers on the right have often railed against academia. In Buckley’s time, the sins were a professed neutrality on matters of value and religion. In the ‘60s, it was the revolutionary counterculture and the rise of the New Left. Today, it is the scourge of identity politics and the attendant intersectionality, trigger warnings, among other signs of radical left dominance among students and faculty alike.

The resulting intolerance for competing viewpoints has led young conservatives to see everything as a matter of free speech.  A noble goal in theory and practice (though ironic, given Buckley’s contempt for “ideological diversity” of the sort he saw at Yale), it is at least sometimes associated with efforts to provoke for provocation’s sake, to “own” or “trigger the libs” rather than try to seriously convince either fence-sitters or tried and true liberals of the truth of conservative ideas. Student groups invite conservative speakers ranging from the reasonable to the incendiary to campus and then sit back and wait for the inevitable protests. They call out left-wing professors who silence dissent. Both Casey Mattox, an attorney working to defend first amendment rights, and Anik Joshi, a student at the University of Michigan who has written on conservative issues for the student paper, identify this tendency as self-defeating, especially among the younger, more anti-Trump crowd.

Indeed, campus conservative movements such as TPUSA have come in for a lot of criticism for engaging in ugly and disingenuous tactics and rhetoric which may play well for donors or conservatives who feel besieged and lonely, but which otherwise do little to truly spread conservative views. What’s great for ranting on Fox News or in best-selling books about crazy campuses does little to counteract or supplant liberal and left-wing dominance of important sections of higher education.

It is true that conservatives effectively use universities to form and train the next generation of conservative elites. From YAF to the Federalist Society to College Republicans, from ISI to the Leadership Institute, the roster of alumni of conservative programs and groups is long and impressive. This wing of conservative activism gets less attention than more provocative means but achieves its aim of providing the conservative movement with powerful leadership at the federal level in all branches of government, as well as in the media and various policy thinktanks.

Elites are important, but what if no one is voting for them? There must be something appealing to the broader American public.

Therein lies the rub – free speech is not necessarily persuasive or correct speech. No conservative would find communist speakers on campus edifying or convincing even if they technically have the right to speak, and to expect largely liberal or leftwing-leaning students to accept the correctness of conservative views simply because there is a “right” to free speech is naïve at best and disingenuous at worst.

The conservative movement may ally with welcome groups like Heterodox Academy and FIRE to ensure that students are indeed exposed to a much fuller range of views, but all that will be for naught if conservatism has nothing attractive to sell.

Which brings us to what conservatism seems to advocate and debate in universities. If the sites of major movements like YAF, TPUSA, ISI, and others are any indication, conservatism is pretty much reduced to training people to get Republicans elected (or be elected as Republicans) and ensure the federal government protect the country and stay off of citizens’ backs. Oh, and fighting back on the fronts of the culture war with varying degrees of effectiveness and persuasiveness, as well as bask in the victory in the Cold War, now thirty years old.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? After all, Ronald Reagan was the one who advanced these ideas! As did Buckley! Sure, there are many bad tactics and poor forms of argument, but surely if we cleaned that up, then everything will be OK, right?

Well, here’s the thing: Far more people attend college and university than before. Most of them will not be politicians. Or political activists. Or journalists. Or pundits. Whether they graduate or not, whether they are conservative or liberal, White or people of color, straight or LGBT, they will live normal lives in normal communities (in cities or suburbs as well as small towns). Conservatism as it stands now has absolutely nothing to offer them outside of ideas on how to vote every few years and perhaps what to read or watch (and probably get upset about, given how limited an effect they have on the federal government).

Conservatives can mock Obama for having been a “community activist” all they want – at least the left understands the importance of the local. Read through the aims of many a left-wing group on campus and you’ll see an intense focus on forming local groups and alliances, on strengthening community, on stuff normal people can contribute to and appreciate. Conservatives can, at best, offer scintillating intellectual debate on high principle and occasional voting advice.

It’s not like conservatives don’t have anything to say on families, communities, local beauty and aesthetics, or the importance of civil society groups. It’s that campus conservative groups as a whole provide almost no tools, ideas, contacts, or advice on how to rebuild or renovate those institutions, on how to strengthen them. Religious groups are certainly an important part of trying to do this, but in an age when that might be a step too far for many, people may need other outlets to help rebuild and strengthen human bonds. This, is especially in a younger generation full of people who never experienced strong ties to begin with.

Some might respond that all I’ve described is a malady of conservatism in general, and that until this is fixed, campus conservatism can’t do much anyway. But to quote George Orwell in his missive regarding the political degradation of the English language: “…an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks…The point is that the process is reversible.”

And so is this. A real effort at investing in ideas and dialogue among generations, leaders, and thinkers past and present about what community, family, and association means and should mean in 21st century America can and should go a long way. Yes, it would take time, maybe a lot of time. No doubt many of the ideas will be stillborn and hare-brained, as many ideas raised during brainstorming sessions tend to be.

Mattox put it nicely: “Focus locally. A student in Iowa may not be in a position to inform national debates about internet speech regulation, say, but they can help others on their campus understand why regulation of student organizations – affecting students of all political views – or increased student fees are burdensome. Your comparative advantage is your own campus and community. And by focusing on understanding your own principles and applying them to the real problems facing your own community you can find more common ground with those who would otherwise oppose you.”

Providing real direction and purpose to leaders and students on things they can actually affect – whether it be university rules and culture, local or state government, or civil society and community, would be incredibly beneficial, and would show that when conservatives say that there is something valuable and worth protecting from the clumsy and corrosive hand of the federal government – we mean something other than just abstract individuals and markets.

Restoring conservatism to relevance in 21st century America is more than just ending bad tactics and ideas, learning real respect for fellow citizens with different views, and ensuring proper representation for those not culturally dominant – important as all these things are. It is about returning to its real roots of protecting, preserving, restoring, and renewing that which has always and should always be eternal in civilized human life.

Campus conservatism, as the font of leadership and ideas for the next generation and the channel aimed at reaching and forming connections with an increasing number of Americans of all kinds, has a real opportunity here to change course and make a real, positive difference for the country, and move towards the love rather than hate part of the right’s relationship with academia.

Here’s to that revolution happening, and soon.

Avi Woolf

Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, and Commentary.