Social media is brimming with opinionated conservatives and Republicans of all ages; there is no shortage of young conservative and young republican organizations across the nation; campus activism is vibrant thanks to groups like Turning Point. Yet, we see few new conservative faces in the public arena. There’s approximately a dozen or so well known young journalists, pundits, and activists who appear at various events and various fora time after time; most conservatives stick to being busy with jobs or attending political meetings and working as campaign managers or running for elections.
Young conservative movement appears to be splintered or non-existent; there is little drive for registering new voters, for aggressive recruitment of staffer placement, or the kind of cultivation of talent that the Democrats have become known for. Part of the reason, of course, is that Republicans and conservatives gravitate towards the business world and professions, which leaves them with little time for consistent publications, TV appearances, intellectual salons and other such activities that do not necessarily lead to immediate outcome (winning races, for instance). Nevertheless, few seem to be available even for part-time commitments; fewer still are those who do not already come from politically connected families. There is no shortage of conservative writing, but a striking dearth of innovative ideas coming from rising voices. Finally, the Republican party is shrinking – and it’s unclear what’s happening to younger voters.
To some extent, the left-wing extremist attitudes on campus are creating a counterreaction. Conservative-leaning college students, in response to pressure, tend to vote more Republican. This represents a perfect opportunity for identifying, recruiting, and training promising future thinkers and doers. Yet conservatives as a whole are failing in this endeavor. The litany of the way talent hunting is being mishandled is mile-long. Some of these failures are easily fixable. They include the failure to encourage and elicit creative ideas on promoting conservatism or interpreting conservative values and thought in an informed way.
There are, perhaps, essay contests and debates, but the names of the winners never make the news, not even in the conservative outlets. Similarly, few young thinkers and planners, who are not involved in political races, are seen speaking out at conservative conferences or other significant events. On the contrary, established figures, members of administration, and high level think tank employees share their views. The desire for acclaim is understandable; yet, what is the attraction to someone in their twenties or early thirties to be involved in “extracurricular” conservatism, beyond serving in an administration if there is no opportunity to contribute to bigger ideas and broader discourse in any significant way?
Besides cultivating the next generation of thinkers, however, there is also another strategic reason for stepping up the recruitment game. Progressives manage to insert their pundits in just about every publication, TV channel, or other public appearance opportunity possible. They are overwhelming the discourse with their plants. Conservatives, by contrast, may occasionally recognize some brave young conservative academics or journalists at some internal event – yet fail to encourage integration within the mainstream community. Thus we see that the idea of “conservatism”, as such, is becoming increasingly dominated by poorly educated, unthinking, and confused polemicists, who may be quick to respond with a succession of talking points, but contribute nothing to winning the larger cultural battles, whether though ideas, or presentation.
There is likewise little to no funding for young conservative-led initiatives that are not traditional outreach organizations, which are focused on every stereotypical conservative activity or type of discussion we think of. Where is the backing and patronage of media aimed at millenials? Where’s the encouragement of originality, creativity, humor, and paradigm shifting? At best, many young conservatives who undergo any sort of training strive to imitate the failing Hannity, Limbaugh, and other conservative models, who have been good at riling up anger, not so great on promoting internal diversity of ideas and the break out from comfort zones and groupthink within the conservative movement. Likewise, there is a general patronizing sense that younger or rising conservatives have not done anything important, and therefore they are not worth the effort. They are left on their own to break out in whatever way they will – and quite often, the people who most succeed in that effort are those who already come from politically active familial backgrounds. Continuation of family traditions is not in itself bad; what’s worse is that conservatism by rote kills motivation, effort, and enthusiasm.
There are currently no organized efforts to recruit new members to the movement, not just for the sake of voting in the next elections. Conservatives appear to have given up completely on winning hearts and minds in blue states. Their focus is almost entirely on strengthening the base; there is little outreach to purple communities, unless the election day is around the corner. Trumpian backlash against the progressive version of identity politics appears to have killed much of the growing momentum in finding and building up allies in diverse communities beyond Trump’s base. Indeed, it is possible to reach out to new immigrants from assorted state, minority communities, seemingly apolitical or mixed church groups, and disaffected individuals without losing sight of core values, or compromising integrity.
Yet none of that is really on the agenda. Republican party has become a clique welcoming largely only to the like-minded on a visceral level that has little to do with ideology or experience. It has become a self-congratulatory club, where little is being accomplished beyond echoing the chorus surrounding the assorted politicians and commenting on every move they make or don’t make. This obsession with politicians (of any sort) as symbols of conservatism and centers of life has served us a poor turn. We have come to relly on their judgment on what conservatism is or should be; rather than developing a thoughtful approach that our elected officials could rely on to promote ideas in the legislatures or executive branches.
Finally, informational and educational efforts have failed. We are crying out about the crisis on college campuses, while forgetting that the crisis actually starts in high schools or earlier. Where are our conservative book clubs? Gathering of constitutionalists? The funding for conservative artists of all stripes? THere is no shortage of Republican political donors; yet their main concern – campaigns – is short-sighted. And ideological conservatives, in their disgust about the party and movement takeover by crude populists, have failed to provide a vibrant, appealing, accessible, and viable alternative. Engagement of the young people should be a top priority. There is something to be said for allowing conservatives to find their own voices, rather than steering them in a particular direction. Yet, left to their own advices, those of us who have not yet fully formed our views, are easy bait for demagogues and reactionaries. Discernment comes with mentorship and investment.
None of what I outlined above is fatal. Developing conferences aimed at bringing together young conservative intellectuals, creators, and community builders, that go beyond the Ra-Rah speeches by shallow pundits is not difficult to develop. We have successful models of hackathons and workshops from the savy young tech community; and progressives have led by example with a proliferation of creative outlets, fun and engaging gallery openings, and evenings of mentorship for the uninvolved with appealing celebrities. While conservatism may not offer the equivalent of Hollywood stars to come bond with the youngsters, there is no shortage of exciting scientists, tech innovators, professionals with non-traditional twists and specialties in their careers, and others who can become brand ambassadors for conservatism, and serve as models for the rising stars.
The battle we wage is not just a battle of ideas, but quite as much a battle of branding, bonding, and breaking stereotypes and ceilings. That means that we should be attracting new followers with humor and satire, theatrics, emotional connections, the power of life-affirming and thought-provoking narratives, and a sense of passion coupled with commitment, openness, and determination. Dry lectures, moralizing, and shallow conservative virtue signaling will only repel the skeptics, and annoy the growing minds, eager for involvement, input, and impact. I suggest starting with something simple – perhaps, with sponsorship of low key discussion/book clubs around campuses, religious institutions, and other social gatherings, which are not aimed at propagandizing or “selling” conservative ideals – but rather at a thoughtful examination of different perspectives and experiences. Wars are won with both passion and preparation. We have fallen far behind on both counts – but knowing what’s missing will help us rise again.