Anik Joshi: The sorry state of conservatism on campus

Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 1:17pm

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The Michigan Daily

Political commentator Ben Shapiro is coming to campus. He has been invited to come down to the University of Michigan at the behest of Young America’s Foundation and there will surely be fireworks at his event (as there tend to be at all of them).

I’m not going to say he should be disinvited, because I do not believe in deplatforming, but I will ask, what does his rhetoric do? Is there an expectation that the incoming circus will actually make anything better? Or is he being invited solely to — if you’ll pardon the phrase — own the libs? A quick look at YouTube videos of his previous on-campus experiences typically features the same thing — a clueless student who makes the mistake of asking a question only to get shot down by Shapiro talking faster than the speed of light. The videos all tend to be titled something to the effect of, "Ben Shapiro OWNS/DESTROYS/OBLITERATES/etc."

This certainly helps fundraising and it no doubt raises Shapiro’s name recognition, but does this convert students to a belief in freer markets and freer people? I would argue that it doesn’t and, if it does anything, it pushes students away from anything resembling conservatism.

There are those who say that the young lean left and, as they grow, they’ll grow into conservatives — but this might not happen.

The young people who put President Obama in office in 2008 and 2012 are settling down and having kids — they’re not college students any longer. However, their liberal politics have stayed with them along with their resistance to voting Republican. This isn’t a problem solely with millennials — Gen Z is just as, if not more liberal than millennials, and I fail to see how large numbers of either of these groups will vote for people who have made militant resistance to gay marriage and transgender rights a prerequisite for involvement (one need only look to the 2016 Republican platform to see things to this effect and beyond).

Not all hope is lost, but much work must be done to regain the trust — and, eventually, the votes — of younger people, and there are promising starts. Shoshana Weissmann, digital media manager of the right-leaning think tank R Street Institute, has become a passionate advocate for occupational licensing reform and groups like the American Conservation Coalition have popped up to give the environmentalist capitalists a place to call home. If people like this were the face of the young right, it would demonstrate that not only are there serious solutions on the right but that they are being pursued by serious people as opposed to what there is today.

The main issue with this important work is that it tends to be outshone by charlatans like Charlie Kirk who came to campus to screech about capitalism in 2018. They’re the visible ones and the ones who will end up forming the backbone of the future of activist conservatism. To be clear, Ben Shapiro is leaps and bounds ahead of Charlie Kirk, but that would, ideally, not be the baseline. This is because when one consciously chooses to make Charlie Kirk the baseline, this lowers the bar for everyone else to the point that an infant could crawl over it.   

Conservatism can offer a compelling vision to young people — lower taxes on the businesses they start, a strong national defense to keep them safe and fewer regulations to make day-to-day life less onerous. However, as long as it comes with the anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim rhetoric of U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the anti-intellectualism of Charlie Kirk and the hostility to basic governance embodied by President Donald Trump, none of them will sign up — and you can’t blame them.

These problems have been written about before and will be written about again. But until the right decides that they’re done vying for the youth vote, nothing is going to change and that is a tragedy. Younger voters could help make the Republican Party more appealing to broader swathes of the electorate and could help divorce the GOP from its current dalliance with bigotry. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem, because the party won’t change without young voters — but young voters aren’t getting involved with the party without changes. This is especially evident given that under one-third of millennials and under one-third of Gen Z approve of President Trump. The more the institutional right ties itself to Trump, the less young voters will approve of the institutional right. This problem has bled down to the campus level and as a result, the on-campus iteration of the institutional right seems to have decided that given the choice between "owning the libs" and achieving meaningful policy victories, they would go with the former.

Those who involve themselves in groups like Turning Point USA and put on these kinds of circuses might do well to remember that if they want to see any public policy that they agree with later in their lifetimes, they’ll need the votes of their peers.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.