God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr.’s celebrated “lover’s quarrel with his alma mater,” exposed and critiqued higher education’s left turn. In 1951, it was a revelation, and helped launch the career of the de facto founder of the American conservative movement. Today, it is axiomatic to incoming conservative students moving into their dorm rooms across the country that they’ll find themselves in the minority. Tension is inevitable, particularly for those interested in being vocal members of the campus political community. The challenges — political and social — are many.
To help students face and overcome these challenges, conservatives have erected a number of campus-oriented institutions over the past 70 years. Some, such as Young America’s Foundation (YAF) and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) — full disclosure, I find myself at National Review thanks to an ISI fellowship — do vital work establishing chapters, providing recruitment supplies, hosting conferences, and bringing in speakers. Others, such as Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA, concentrate their efforts on building the brand and portfolio of their leaders and function as personal vanity projects instead of instruments of the movement.
Practical advice for young, aspiring campus activists can be hard to find, especially for those whose universities lack established and reputable conservative institutions. Many find themselves aware of the challenges they’ll face, but unaware of how to manage them, how to organize, how to comport themselves, and how to lead. For $25, you can purchase the aforementioned Kirk’s book, Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters. But there are other, better alternatives to Kirk’s vision for collegiate activism.
Aspiring advocates must first understand their purpose on campus. Some see their mission as defending today’s iteration of the Republican Party, or perhaps their own personal kind of conservatism. They have been misled. The Republican Party is and always has been a vehicle of the conservative movement, not synonymous with it. Students should see their goal as defending the timeless principles perhaps best described in National Review’s Mission Statement, penned by Buckley in 1955 — among them belief in an “organic moral order” and the virtues of a properly grounded American exceptionalism, as well as a steadfast opposition to statism. These principles have not only served the country well, but they have also allowed conservatives of various stripes enough space to debate their differing visions of the American Right while still proving sticky enough to hold these factions together. Political figures are fleeting, and campus conservatives would be unwise to make them the primary object of their attention and advocacy. That’s not to say that knocking on doors for a GOP candidate for city council, Congress, or even the White House is not worthwhile — it is — but it should be an ancillary, rather than a principal purpose.
In the current environment, many student activists arrive on campus ready to embody Donald Trump. Regardless of one’s admiration of or distaste for the former president, this is a faulty strategy that does little to move the ball forward. Too often, students mistake noise for confidence and hope that those listening to them will too. Being loud is not the same as being effective. On campus, there is no base to appeal to, no office to be elected to by that base, nor any public policy to influence from that office.
Collegiate activism is a purer sort of politics. The aim is not to gain followers on the basis of a powerful personality or to turn out those who already agree with you. It’s to develop as a better advocate and person, to help your fellow conservatives do the same, and to change hearts and minds. It all sounds very West Wing, and it doesn’t mean that you should wilt when your opponents use their majority status to bully and intimidate conservative activists — which they will. Stand up for your principles and yourselves, but don’t let yourself get dragged down into the mud. In the inhospitable environment of the university, you can’t win down there.
Moreover, you should be careful not to approach everyone you meet with suspicion and an assumption of mutual enmity. Such an assumption results only in more aggravation and less accomplishment. Conservatives, for their own as well as the campus’s benefit, should strive to make practical allies out of our ideological opponents. Oftentimes, the only thing preventing a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship is an unfounded belief that these groups are fated to go to war with each other. This is particularly true of members of campus administration who may not share your politics, but are also oftentimes risk-averse figures whose chief aim is not to crush conservative groups, but to avoid bad press. Building long-term relationships between yourself and key members of your school’s bureaucracy and handing those relationships off to your successors is far better than making those members into your adversaries. Some activists dream of having an event canceled and basking in the glory of the publicity such a cancellation brings. The objective should be to put on informative, persuasive events without a hitch. That’s a task which becomes much easier when you have a working relationship with the administration.
Clubs and organizations are the foundation of conservative activism. Establishing new ones and maintaining those that already exist are perhaps the single most important things conservative students can do on campus. These organizations, properly constructed and ordered, ensure that the Right’s voice will outlast any single group or class of committed activists. If a YAF or College Republicans chapter exists, join it. If not, start one. These “general” conservative campus staples provide students with the ability to host speakers, give them a forum to discuss and debate the issues of the day with each other, and can serve as a megaphone to the broader campus community.
Beyond the staples, even small steps toward organization and formalization can be pivotal. Creating pockets of community in other political spaces on campus — political unions, student governments, etc. — with a purpose is always a positive. Conservative students should be seeking out every opportunity to do so.
Building strong, durable cultures within these organizations is paramount. Habits, practices, styles, approaches, and ambitions are passed down from class to class. Identify underclassmen with leadership potential and invest significant time in helping them develop as advocates.
In the transient world of collegiate activism, students have only so much time to teach the next generation how to lead. Clubs with a history of accomplishment, serious advocacy, and a constructive approach toward the campus tend to carry these practices forward. Those that have sought to garner attention, generate outrage, and take an adversarial approach toward the rest of campus will do the same. Don’t just explain what it is that you do on campus, explain why it is that you do it.
To choose to be a face of conservatism on campus is to take on one of the most exhausting and rewarding responsibilities possible for a college student. From the jump, you start at a disadvantage. And as I’ve previously explained, your peers will tend to harden themselves against you over the course of your four years. The best way to save yourself headaches while maximizing your efficacy is to adopt an approach that aligns with your purpose, which should be threefold: putting conservatism’s best foot forward, providing a community for all members of the campus Right, and developing talent that wants to pursue a career in the political sphere. These are realistic and worthy objectives that unite all conservatives and can be achieved by seeking out allies instead of enemies, projecting confidence instead of noise, and building and maintaining responsible, durable institutions that will outlast your own tenure. There’s no panacea for the particular challenges you’ll face as a conservative campus leader, but armed with these principles, you should be well-equipped to handle them.
Good luck. We’re all counting on you.