The rise of young conservatives?


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Across the country there is a pervasive sense of frustration with government, coupled with anxiety and uncertainty about the future. A recent CBS News poll found that 62 percent of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. In that same poll, 53 percent were dissatisfied with how things are going in Washington, and 17 percent responded as being angry.

While it has been a challenging first year for President Obama, the fortunes of the Republican Party appear to be improving at just the right time. Republicans hope the 2010 elections will be a replay of the elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

The right-wing elements of the Republican Party seem to be back in vogue as well. The Tea Party movement is the most recent and talked-about political phenomenon. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a quixotic figure to most Americans, remains very popular with the Republican base. And conservative talk radio — as well as conservative news (a.k.a., Fox News) — habitually registers large audiences.

What conservatives hope to do is channel the tremendous frustration at Washington and incumbents into electoral gains and a 21st-century conservative movement. A movement with a long intellectual history, but in our American context one that became a serious force in the 1960s.

In 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide election to President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was trounced at the voting booth, but he ran on a clear set of conservative ideas and principles. Limited government (read: states’ rights), free-market enterprise, and a strong national defense to fight the communists. Or maybe you’ll recall the infamous Goldwater quote, “extremism in the face of liberty is no vice.”

The Goldwater campaign and the movement that it progenerated were reactionary, however. Conservatives were reacting to the tremendous social transformation the country was undertaking.

It wasn’t just the civil-rights protests that generated a peculiar angst and unease. Counterculture movements, feminism, and the war in Vietnam led many to recoil from all the change that was happening around them. Culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the conservative movement’s ultimate success was in producing a slightly right-of-center country.

There are many differences between then and now, but we appear to be at a similar moment. Our battles are no longer whether African Americans have the right to vote, but whether marriage should be extended to gays and lesbians. Now we debate climate change: Is it human-generated process or a natural one? Yet we are still debating the nature of the free market and the appropriate role for government.

And just like then, Americans are recoiling and uncertain. Many are distrustful of large institutions like government to make a difference in their lives, but nonetheless expect government to produce.

So will we see a modern-day conservative resurgence? Only time will tell. But this question should cause youth and college students to place contemporary political phenomena in their appropriate contexts. Fair-minded individuals can come to very different political conclusions. Yet some of the rhetoric and behavior exhibited on the right is troubling and possibly dangerous.

One example clearly illuminates this. This month’s National Tea Party Convention drew some of the most fervent Tea Party activists, Palin and former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. In a speech at the conference, Tancredo remarked that Obama was elected by “people who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English.” Tancredo, while intending to denigrate African Americans and Latinos, was in fact factually wrong. More whites voted for Obama than any other ethnic group.

Now, Tancredo doesn’t speak for all Republicans and conservatives. And the Tea Party doesn’t, either. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell the difference. And if this is what the right continues to offer young people — the most diverse generation ever — their incipient rise will be Dead On Arrival.

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