It was about 12:30am Sunday morning in February, 2013. A group of students and I were on a bus heading back from National Harbor, MD to Michigan. We had just spent three days at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where we received a crash course on conservatism’s past and its future.
I was conversing with a friend about the lessons we had learned and the training we had received over the past couple of days. We discussed the need for conservatives and libertarians to play a more integral role in universities and online, and what, if anything, we could personally do about it. In that moment, we decided to run for Student Government and really put our principles into practice. We fought to reign in spending and block pointless pet projects where student tax dollars would be put to waist. We also worked to make the student government more transparent by requiring that bills up for consideration be posted online with ample time for students to contact their representatives with comments or concerns.
I’m not sure I would have ever considered getting involved if I had not gone to CPAC that February.
The talks I attended, and the discussions I had got me to think about what it was that I wanted to do with my life and the rest, as they say, is history.
That sounds like a nice story, doesn’t it? Why don’t more young people have that experience at CPAC? Well, the truth is, they do. But you won’t hear them because, for most journalists and bloggers who attend, it is easier to write about what the young do in the hotel room than about what they do during or after they leave the grand ballroom. But even if they do not trigger bloggers by purchasing prophylactics, have their sexual history questioned if they wear stilettos, or have their YikYak conversations published on the internet when they attend CPAC this year, the events of the past few months will bring young people’s intellectual integrity under the microscope.
College campuses in the fall of 2015 were hit with almost universal demand for so-called “safe spaces;” places where students could surround each other in a collective sensory blanket to escape the harsh clutches of reality, if only for a few moments. They could retreat into the open arms of fellow students and dream of the day when campuses would finally embrace a progressive vision for America, and they would receive a participation trophy for the part that they played. This led to a massive push back from conservatives and many labeled the entire generation to which the students belonged, the millennials, as whiny, entitled, and self-obsessed.
The critiques of left-wing ideology expressed by some millennials is being turned into a critique of the generation itself, which is on the surface unfair and at its deepest examination counterproductive to the conservative cause.
Chelsea, a volunteer for Bernie Sanders, went on a 4-minute, teary-eyed diatribe about how her feelings were hurt by voters in the southern States whom she cold-called in order to get them to feel the Bern. Chelsea muttered in between sniffles that she could not believe that these voters had referred to other human beings as “animals”. She then said that the Donald Trump supporters made her feel like she had just conversed with “less than a brick wall”, which is somehow a less insulting way to describe other human beings. Certainly, the way that Chelsea responded in her video is humorous, but it is hardly characteristic of millennials on the right. That is, unless you’re Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit, who labeled Chelsea “a card-carrying member of the Precious Snowflake generation”.
Now, the notion that young people can get carried away with their emotions at times is true, just like it was true for their parents, and their parents’ parents. But the rise of social media broke all barriers to freedom of expression and the world is now able to connect with each other in a way unlike that of the telephone or even the television. Expressing your opinion is no longer limited to just being one of a thousand faces at a campaign rally, or sitting down to write an opinion column that may or may not be published.
Today, a hastily recorded 4-minute video can go viral overnight and be seen by people all over America and the world. From this, it should be no surprise that a group of protesting college students in Columbia, MO can connect to millions of people around the world in real time, unfiltered by the bias of a news organization. Like it or not, that “precious snowflake” is communicating with people all over the United States, sharing her observations and influencing people one way or the other on how to think about the electorate.
This, to me, is where CPAC needs to leave its mark.
Thousands of millennials are taking to social media and making their mark on politics, and they are not exactly friends of the conservative cause. This need no longer be the case. Millennials are coming to CPAC because they want to be there, they want to learn how to make the argument not just to their professor, but to their family, friends, and anyone else following their Twitter account. Arming young people with the skills to make all of those arguments should be CPAC’s goal, and not to nitpick their style choices or write them off as snowflakes because members of their generation act a certain way.
CPAC is hosting an Activism Bootcamp this year which is a large step in the right direction. However, patronizing articles and snide commentary like those mentioned above only serve to undercut an otherwise vital mission for conservatives in the coming months and years. At the end of the day, all that will matter is whether young people leave inspired to make a difference, or wondering whether physical aesthetics trump the intellectual convictions of American conservatism.