Empty Words

News & Politics
Editor’s Note: Campus Progress — a project of the Center for American Progress sent two young undercover reporters to the recent College Republican National Convention at Arlington, VA. The following is one of their essays. You can also read Kim and Geoff’s full, moment-by-moment blog account of this year’s CRNC.
Spending a weekend in the throes of young conservatives was sometimes amusing (seer-sucker suits), sometimes horrifying (Rev. Jesse Peterson) and sometimes just plain dumbfounding (Busch Light?). I talked with a number of students who had grown up conservative and just didn’t seem to know any better. They were brought out of their conservative households into the inferno of outrageous speakers, horrible jokes and highly funded institutions to be molded into an army of young pundits, activists and the future leaders of the GOP.

Among them are super stars, such as Paul Gourley, the new Chairman who has big plans for College Republicans, including building a more effective and efficient field program and updating the website to incorporate blogs and other new high-tech innovations to stay on the cutting edge. His priorities are to train state leaders and create a national plan to get “votes, volunteers and media.”

Speakers stressed staying true to core values, but never really explained what those were beyond having a “good heart” and this vague concept of equality meaning everyone is treated the same regardless of the institutional oppressions they may face.

The basic rhetoric of the conference came down to Bush good, liberals inherently evil. Oh, and social security reform is important. They hardly mentioned Iraq, except to say the soldiers are valiant and we must respect them, there was no talk about scandalous leaders such as Tom DeLay and nothing was heard about healthcare, education or other important domestic policy issues.

Even Gourley stuck to this formula of vagueness through (lame) message discipline and when asked about issues generally replied that it is important for students to “support President Bush’s agenda.” He also repeated that social security is an important issue to youth, but without mention to why or how Bush’s plan might benefit them.

He proclaimed that students must “get off the couch, stand up and speak out.” But for what cause? This idea of being active was repeated throughout the convention, especially in the training sessions by Leadership Institute and Young America’s Foundation, but without any clarity about why.

However, this didn’t seem to bother the up and coming conservative leadership who appeared content with the empty rhetoric of their leaders about Reagan-style economics and Bush’s agenda. These students are not being taught to think about these issues themselves, but rather to listen and follow without questioning. And even their new Chairman has nothing more inspiring to offer than excitement about grassroots organizing for Bush as a symbol without substance.

The blind-faith of these students is both a weakness and an infallible strength of the conservative movement. For progressives, it is often our first reaction to attack such baseness with logic and studies and policy initiatives, but these students just don’t care about those, unless presented by Grover Norquist in a Reganomics crash course.

Additionally, our bleeding hearts have us caring about people outside our immediate families, so inherently we complicate every issue by looking at all the people affected. I believe this is the truly moral way to go about politics, but conservatives don’t share this and are amused by poking fun at various groups and generally pissing them off. This is how they successfully upset campus progressives who make a fuss and turn a small conservative action into something that gets a lot of attention, and generally to the detriment of progressive initiatives.

Besides the homogeneity of Christianly provocative “moral” messaging, the right has great cross-issue unity that is hard to beat for pure political power and leverage. The Leadership Institute is trying to encourage students to start other conservative groups on campus such as right to life or gun groups, but without saying (and sometime with saying) are encouraging these simply as extensions of CR. This will only increase their power by attracting more students who especially interested in just single issues, but ultimately throw them into the larger conservative movement.

I believe this lends even more legitimacy to the idea of progressive alliances and cross-issues organization (seriously, not just a plug for CP). This has got to be a priority for the progressive movement in order to leverage our own political power for politicians who support the movement as a platform for sensible, compassionate and efficient government that protects our country, cares for our people, educates our children and preserves our environment. Such a politician is not just another Democrat or Green, but rather someone who embraces progressive values as defined by a diversity of issue groups.

Conservative students have deep ideological ties to their movement. They believe this is morality and patriotism. They truly believe they are right and doing the just and moral thing. This is hard to argue with, especially with charts. But, they are human. Seriously, it’s true. So we’ve got to maintain our own confidence, but stay civil and respectful, and really not let them get to us with their liberal-baiting tactics. The experienced conservative students are generally willing to talk, but don’t expect them to say too much.

Progressive energy would be well spent inspiring and recruiting to our ranks the kind of passion and commitment I saw at the convention from the right.

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