We can’t expect to defeat the Left if we don’t take the time to reflect on the state of the Right. One of conservatism’s biggest inter-movement issues, the race between mainstream conservatives and the radical paleo-libertarian alliance represented by Ron Paul, recently caught the attention of Keith William Neely, a Vanderbilt University student who wrote a Huffington Post article identifying the “Radical Right” as the “real threat to conservatives on college campuses.”
Don’t let that headline fool you; it may sound like the start of another by-the-numbers HuffPo hit piece, but Neely’s piece is really a substantive take on a serious problem facing the Right:
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 […]
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’.
Remember YAL? I had a run-in with them last year, in which YAL writer Wesley Messamore wrote a crappy rebuttal to one of my Ron Paul takedowns and couldn’t defend it, so he instead demanded a video debate and declared victory when I said I wasn’t interested. YAL also shills for anti-American cyber anarchist Julian Assange, dislikes copyright laws, and writes insipid, self-worshipping poetry, so I’m glad to see someone else calling out these pretenders to the conservative mantle. Neely’s examples are hit and miss, though—I’ve also noticed the Paulestinians’ creepy interest in Guy Fawkes imagery, but opposing the Federal Reserve, however misguided they may be (an issue I readily admit I haven’t studied enough to pontificate on) doesn’t strike me as manifestly insane.
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.
Neely is right—as I’ve written before, one of the key temperamental differences between conservatives and libertarians is the latter’s deficit of prudence—they fail to recognize that, given human nature, even the best governments and societies will be imperfect, and that at some point, common sense has to kick in, and people need to recognize the difference between doing the right thing and counterproductively obsessing over minutiae.
The danger Neely sees is that these groups’ “provocative presentation” overshadows more serious conservatives while discouraging much-needed “exchange of ideas”:
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.
Neely calls on college conservatives to “take ownership of conservative ideas away from these radical groups,” but he doesn’t say how. Allow me to suggest that the key reason radical groups flourish where traditional ones falter isn’t a matter of flashy handouts, posters, or masks—which aren’t intrinsically bad, by the way; they’re no more radical and no less conservative than whatever point they’re making. In fact, turning up your nose at such “provocative” tactics doesn’t make you a better Kirk adherent; it just makes you a lousy salesman.
No, the Paulites’ real advantage is that, for all their other faults, they do a much better job than many conservative and Republican groups of conveying a sense of urgency for their cause, a sense that they get the stakes. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy, stressed-out college student concerned about the country’s future. You’re introduced to two conservative organizations.
The first one emphasizes dry, academic-type discussion, frames politics as simply a contest between better ideas and worse ideas, has a few signature events every semester but never really rocks the boat, and maybe even formally identifies with a political party that has let conservatives down time and time again.
The second one is dynamic, energized, always looking for new ideas. It frames politics as a battle for the nation’s survival, bluntly declaring that freedom hangs in the balance. It seems to care more about ideas than decorum or offending the wrong people. It doesn’t let the Republican National Committee define who they are, and in fact frequently rakes politicians on its own side over the coals for doing the wrong thing.
Now ask: which one of those sounds more worthy of your time?
Complain about fringe right-wingers giving the rest of us a bad name all you like (Lord knows I have!), but recognize that the problem isn’t simply a bunch of bullies stealing the helpless good guys’ thunder. At least part of the Paulites’ success comes from being an alternative to the impotent, out-of-touch establishment. If serious conservatives want to retake their campuses from the radicals, they’ll have to prove they’re not just present to comprise the right-wing half of politics as usual, but that they’re genuine reformers who deserve students’ support.