Rise of the Young Traditionalists

Hillsdale College campus (image via Facebook)
Traditionally conservative college students reject the vocal liberalism and libertarianism of their peers.

Young Americans are usually thought of as decidedly liberal. This is an oversimplified picture. A sizeable minority of Millennials identify as conservative. Despite some evidence that Millennial conservatives lean left on social issues, it would be wrong to write all of them off as libertarians. Some young conservatives, in fact, hold anti-libertarian attitudes, and their numbers may be increasing.

Plainly speaking, these young conservatives hold socially and culturally conservative views. On the other hand, they are wary of individualism and free markets. They are not necessarily anti-capitalist, but fear that laissez-faire economic systems can be excessively cutthroat, prizing individual material gain above the wellbeing of the community.

This strain of conservative thought is closely related to the traditionalism of Russell Kirk, the 20th-century conservative political theorist who authored The Conservative Mind. Kirk identified ten foundational conservative principles. The first principle states that conservatives believe in an “enduring moral order.” Moral truths do not change with the times, and neither does human nature. “Conservatives are champions,” he continues, “of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.”

Conservatives value private property because it is “closely linked” to freedom, but argue that “getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence.” Decisions directly affecting members of a community should be made “locally and voluntarily.” Regarding governance, conservatives recognize that human passions must be restrained: Order and liberty must be balanced. Moreover, a conservative “favors reasoned and temperate progress,” but does not worship Progress as some type of magical force.

Young, anti-libertarian conservatives represent a new generation of traditionalists. And they are increasingly prominent on some college campuses.

Christian McGuire, a student at Virginia’s Patrick Henry College and editor-in-chief of the George Wythe Review, spoke to National Review about the school’s conservative climate, saying “the whole campus is fairly conservative.” Patrick Henry College is a Christian school, so faith strongly influences students’ political views. McGuire says most students come from “a background of religious conservatism,” and feel as if they “have been left out of the national discussion.” More bluntly, he claims “most of Patrick Henry College realizes we lost the culture war.”

In response, McGuire and his fellow conservative classmates have started to turn to traditionalist thinkers such as Kirk. McGuire mentioned other increasingly popular thinkers among campus conservatives: Edmund Burke and G. K. Chesterton. Even Catholic social teaching is influencing some students. They are finding that these are rich sources of conservative thought.

When asked whether monarchist sentiments could be found on campus, McGuire responded firmly: “Yes, absolutely.” Though still very much a minority view at Patrick Henry College, some traditionalist-minded students are open to the idea of a king.

Traditionalist sentiments can also be found almost 600 miles northwest of Patrick Henry College, at the University of Notre Dame. Mimi Teixeira, a student at Notre Dame and vice president of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, told National Review there is a sizeable group of students inclined to traditionalism. They are “more interested in, and connected to, the Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching,” she says. Besides Burke and Kirk, Pope Saint John Paul II is a powerful influence on this group.

The Notre Dame traditionalists are skeptical of classical liberalism. “We do have a group of conservatives,” she says, “who don’t agree with the Enlightenment.” They contend classical liberalism is “missing a piece.”

Notre Dame isn’t the only Catholic university with a sizeable number of young traditionalists. The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., is home to many students who “could be understood as profoundly traditional,” according to Friar Israel-Sebastian N. Arauz-Rosiles, O.F.M. Conv., a seminarian at the university. The school’s Catholic identity deeply influences how students think. He describes Saint Thomas Aquinas as “probably the single most influential thinker on the university campus,” in terms of his impact on students’ theological and political outlook.

Friar Israel has noticed that some students attend a yearly Mass in honor of Blessed Karl of Austria celebrated at Saint Mary Mother of God Church in Washington, D.C. A member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, Blessed Karl of Austria was the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. Friar Israel acknowledges this might merely represent a superficial interest in Catholic monarchy. Nevertheless, he has encountered “a number of students who reject classical liberalism” and such political theorists as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

At Hillsdale College in Michigan, traditionalist conservatism has many adherents. Michael Lucchese, a senior at Hillsdale, says “lots of people come in libertarian, and come out hardcore traditionalist.” “They reject,” he continues, “the sort of free-markets-will-solve-everything mentality of libertarianism in favor of a more traditional conservatism.” Hillsdale students are exposed to the Great Books of the Western canon, including texts by Plato and Aristotle. Russell Kirk, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Leo Strauss also influence Hillsdale students. Lucchese added that C. S. Lewis is the most uncontroversial figure on campus, beloved by everybody.

Like McGuire, Lucchese reports that some students are sympathetic to monarchism, “especially in the history department.” Pointedly, he says many students are dissatisfied with the modern world. They recoil at the prevalence of “sexual immorality” and “the atomism at the heart of liberal capitalism.” Traditionalism looks to higher, permanent things such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Students see that as more fulfilling than what the modern world has to offer.

Traditionalism looks to higher, permanent things such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Students see that as more fulfilling than what the modern world has to offer.

Traditionalist conservatism is not establishing deep roots on all campuses. Marlo Safi, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and editor-in-chief of The Pitt Maverick, told National Review that most conservatives there are of a libertarian bent. “I have only met maybe five people,” she says, “whom I would call traditionalists” in the vein of Russell Kirk. Most conservative students prefer to talk about Milo Yiannopoulos and “people who are currently on the scene,” says Safi.

Similarly, Anthony Palumbo, editor-in-chief of the Wake Forest Review, told National Review there’s not much traditionalist conservatism at Wake Forest. Most conservatives at Wake Forest care little about social and cultural issues, preferring to promote free-market economics.

Among students, traditionalist conservatism seems to be especially common at Catholic universities and smaller Christian colleges. These young traditionalists question the idea of Progress, and express discontent with the modern world. They find value in community, and their views are usually rooted in faith. The Left may be winning the culture wars, but these students keep the flame of traditional morality ablaze. They reject libertarianism, especially what they see as its excessive faith in free markets and individual material gain. They often look to similar thinkers for inspiration: political theorists such as Russell Kirk, statesmen such as Edmund Burke, philosophers such as Plato, numerous Catholic intellectuals, and others.

They are not quite a monolithic group. Not all of them are monarchists, for example. The degree to which they are skeptical of classical liberalism also differs. Some are very much opposed to Locke and Rousseau; others are more cautious in their criticism.

The presence of traditionalist conservatism among college students reveals that some young Americans reject the vocal liberalism and libertarianism of their peers. More than that, however, these young traditionalists fear that the modern world has gone astray. They are the vanguard of a new generation standing athwart history, trying to reorient Americans toward ideas and ideals that nourish the whole person: community, truth, goodness, and beauty.


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— Jeff Cimmino is a student of history at Georgetown University and an editorial intern at National Review.

Jeff CimminoJeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review. He is a junior pursuing a B.A. in history and a minor in government at Georgetown University. Cimmino was the founding ...


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