College conservatives have a problem. It starts with 'R', rhymes with 'adicalism', and it's threatening to erode what popular support conservative ideas have on college campuses across the nation. Radical organizations on the right, in hopes of garnering more attention for their ideas, have resorted to increasingly provocative tactics to spread their message on America's college campuses. And to some degree, it's been effective. Polling at the latest CPAC suggests that nearly half of its attendees were between the ages of 18 and 25, temporarily dispelling the old political adage that a conservative at 25 has no heart and a liberal at 35 no brain.
Of course calling them "conservatives" is a little inaccurate. A conservative, in the words of Russell Kirk, is simply "one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night". They hold structured liberty and order to be invaluable bastions of defense for free society, and that the responsibility of navigating the tenuous balance between the two falls to a State deriving its authority from the consent of the governed. Conservatism, by its very nature, opposes radicalism. But on college campuses, concepts like "conservative" and "radical" have become dangerously entangled by organizations whose practices discourage the exchange of ideas in favor of provocative presentation.
At Vanderbilt for example, a local chapter of the radical libertarian organization Young Americans for Liberty has found limited success in putting on large events like the one on March 26th, where they prominently displayed the 'National Debt Clock' alongside photocopied images of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to illustrate the need for disbanding the Federal Reserve. At public events, they wear Guy Fawkes masks to advertise their presence, and have even been known to target conservatives with their extremist ire. At the recent IMPACT Symposium, members of the organization passed out leaflets pejoratively branding both Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol as 'neo-cons'.
Organizations like YAL are sheep in wolves' clothing for college conservatives. On politically apathetic college campuses, the outrageous certainly garners its fair share of attention. While YAL has no trouble attracting large crowds with their antics, traditional organizations like College Republicans have difficulty pulling in similar crowds for notable speakers like moderate Republican Governor Bill Haslam. In a perverted twist on reality, public apathy allows these radical organizations to set the agenda for public discourse, oftentimes with alarming consequences.
In this alternate reality, the inability or unwillingness of true college conservatives to engage their base leaves an atmosphere in which radicalized conservatism is allowed to flourish. As these radical organizations grow in number and membership, the conservative voice on college campuses begins to disappear. If anything, college campuses provide a startling microcosm for a world in which political dialogue between opposing views gives way to entrenched extremism; a world in which the exchange of ideas succumbs to political isolationism.
College conservatives need to take ownership of conservative ideas away from these radical groups. They simply can't afford to let a small band of radicals wrest away control of the movement that Buckley popularized -- that Reagan realized. And the stakes could never be higher. With an unprecedented federal deficit, ballooning unemployment, and American troops abroad, the public is crying for answers true conservatives can provide. Fiscal prudence and conservative principles are ideas that only reasoned debate can bring about, not aggressive pamphleteering, hokey 'Bernanke Bills', or symbolic masks.
The election of 2012 will serve as a vital checkpoint for the health of the young conservative movement. Will true conservatives with genuine messages take back college campuses? Or will the radical right prevail, sending thousands of young alienated voters to the polls to support Barack Obama's recently launched bid for reelection. The future of young conservatives -- and perhaps the movement as a whole -- depends on it.