The Grand (Young?) Party

Conservatives talk millennials and politics at the Western Conservative Summit

The Grand (Young?) Party

In 2008, and then again in 2012, young people were instrumental in electing President Barack Obama. The millennial generation, according to polling, is more diverse, socially liberal and non-religious than its predecessors — making them more of a tofu-eating demographic than traditional sirloin conservatives, in the language of the Western Conservative Summit meeting in Denver this weekend.

The prevailing explanation for this dynamic offered by speakers at summit is that young people are misinformed and conformist. They’re this way, the narrative continues, partly because of laziness and naivete, but also, importantly, because the Left communicates their message far more effectively than the Right.  If social media was supposed to be the great tool of liberation and organization, Democrats, as it turns out, are far better at wielding it.

Liberal-leaning media and academia are primarily responsible for painting Republicans in the worst possible light to the impressionable millennials, according to speaker after speaker, many of whom are prominent on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. The theme of Republicans-as-victims was a common thread running through speeches at the fifth annual summit hosted by Colorado Christian University’s think tank, the Centennial Institute.

“We [conservatives] are the bigots, the racists, the homophobes … we’re the bad guys” in the liberal narrative, as Ben Shapiro, a Brietbart and Town Hall contributor, put it to a crowd of about 3,000.

The bad-guy narrative has real consequences, some speakers asserted.

“I was bullied by the Chicago public school system,” said Charlie Kirk, a young speaker at a panel organized to grapple with how to win over millennials who have been co-opted by Democrats. Kirk, who founded Turning Point USA right out of high school, said young conservatives are “intimidated by teachers, professors for being conservatives, for believing in these values.”

The organization has built a robust website and a well-connected conservative advisory council since Kirk founded it in 2012 to educate students “about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and capitalism.”

Like others at the summit, Kirk also saw a measure of laziness in young people. Liberalism, he said, is an easy “temptation” and conservatism is a kind of “enlightenment” requiring active effort.

This dilemma persists through higher education, according to Bill Armstrong, president of Colorado Christian University and former U.S. Representative and Senator.  “The dominant theme, the ethos, the zeitgeist, the way things go [on college campuses], is way to the left,” Armstrong said in a speech. “Students are fed a steady diet of left wing ideas.”

Countering that narrative takes nerve.  “Challenge what your liberal teachers are telling you,”  urged Ashley Pratt, another millennial panelist who heads communications at Young America’s Foundation.

Though most of the audience appeared to be long out of school, there were plenty of younger attendees among them eager to heed the advice. Current and recently graduated students from the Colorado Christian University introduced all the speakers and took up a handful of tables in the hall, cheering vivaciously.

The Centennial Institute also hosted the Young Conservatives Leadership Conference the week leading up to the summit, bringing in 120 students age 16-20 to attend a week of classes, workshops and field trips put on by the Centennial Institute—CCU’s think tank—and hosted by radio host Hugh Hewitt. The conference was billed as an opportunity for young people “to work on leadership development, learn about politics in a free society, make new friends, and share ideas about America’s future.” The Institute was expecting 200 to 250+ students to enroll, and many in attendance received financial aid from the Centennial Institute or the Shining City scholarship, funded by individual donors.

Generation Opportunity, Virginia-based group with ties to conservative powerhouses David and Charles Koch, didn’t fund scholarships this year, said John Andrews, director of the institute and summit chair.

“If there’s a Koch implication in that question, the answer is ‘no,’ but I wish,”  Andrews said when asked whether Generation Opportunity had funded the scholarships.  Discussions about grants started too late to involve such outside groups, he added. Generation Opportunity had a booth at the summit, along with other youth-oriented organizations.

Many YCLC attendees said they could relate to Kirk’s experience of feeling alienated for their conservative beliefs and recount similar accounts of liberal bias in their schools. “So many young people are just taught the wrong things,” said Ethan Kopp, attendee of the Youth Leadership Conference and son of former state Sen. Mike Kopp, “They think they’re right because their teachers said it.”

Countering the dominant narrative and making the conservative message resonate with these voters is a matter of good communication, many said.

“Part of the reason we’re losing the cultural conversation is because we don’t have the right stories,” said Warren Cole Smith, radio host at WORLD News Group and the only non-millennial on the panel dedicated to millennials.  “We need to be better storytellers.”

President of the Heritage Foundation and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint took a similar line in a speech. “Perception is reality,” he said. “A lot of people perceive that conservative ideas are bad—hateful, bigoted, just for the rich.”  That is why the Heritage Foundation, in addition to policy research and advocacy, is focused on messaging.

“We’re learning how to talk to people,” DeMint said. “It’s as simple as words.”

Like Smith, DeMint stressed the importance of controlling the cultural narrative: “It’s not enough to talk about how bad [liberal ideas] are. We have to tell the story of how our ideas make the world better,” he said.

Mary Katherine Ham, editor-at-large at Hot Air and contributing editor at Town Hall magazine, argued in another speech that just because millennials voted for Democrats in the past doesn’t mean their party affiliation is set in stone.  “The young people who we’re trying to reach out to don’t like Michelle Obama’s school lunches or soda bans,” Ham said.

Despite all the assertions about them, some young people at the summit said they really just weren’t sure about any definitive conclusions, party allegiance or sweeping political ideology at this point. “I have to get more informed on both sides before I decide,” said Laura Ortiz, whose friends surrounding her nodded in agreement.

“I don’t think everyone has to be a conservative; I don’t think everyone has to be a liberal—I just think everybody has to think for themselves,” said Emily Lusk, wearing an open smile.

[Photos by Nat Stein]

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About the Author

Nat Stein

Nat Stein is a Denver-based reporter. Check out her other work at Cipher magazine, KRCC public radio, Jacobin magazine and In These Times.

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