Over the course of my time at Duke University, I have been mistaken for a liberal time and time again. Upon correcting one well-meaning man after he jokingly called my group of fellow interns in Washington, D.C., and I “crazy liberals,” he professed his surprise. I was a 21-year-old attending Duke—how could I be anything but? He was not wrong to assume. Of seven college students he was speaking to, I was the only conservative, reflecting a growing trend of America's youth leaning to the left.
Over the past three years, my experiences on Duke’s campus have convinced me that many (not all, by any means) of my peers identify as liberal by default. The rhetoric that is bandied about by student interest groups and many professors makes it difficult to distinguish between the false, idealized version of conservatism and the true principle behind the movement. It has become easy to mistakenly conceptualize the conservative effort to preserve individuals’ rights to life, liberty and prosperity as an effort to undermine them.
For example, if I was an international student who was hearing about America’s politics in detail for the first time, it might make sense to be suspicious of a movement that is said to be the movement of “the white, rich, heterosexual male.” If asked whether low-income workers should make a federal minimum wage of $7.25 or $12, I would likely choose the latter. If I was told that low-income, minority voters are being kept away from the polls, I would be understandably concerned.
By engaging with conservative policy proposals on the basis of the supposed “white, rich, heterosexual male” identity of their authors, we are exempted from examining them on merit of their substance. In a blatant example of identity politics, we disservice the scores of conservatives who do not fit the conventional picture we paint of America’s right. By only having to state the obvious—that $12 is, of course, a more livable wage than $7.25 and that all Americans should, of course, have access to the polls—we rob policies like opposition to mandating a higher federal minimum wage and support for voter identification laws of their nuance. Conservatism is painted by the shallowest of brushes on this campus, often without even a cursory effort at understanding it.
It is unfortunate that the label of conservatism has become a catch-all for policies that do not pass the test of political correctness at first glance. Being liberal has come to mean being an advocate for the poor, for women and for minorities by its very virtue of being the alternative to conservatism. In an age defined by affinity for social justice and activism, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of college students today identify as liberal. They are fighting for the disenfranchised, and political identity is the first frontier for self-righteousness.
My generation has grown up in a golden age. I remember attending a conference where Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, reminded a group of us that we live in a period of history richer than any period in the past. Thanks to the spread of democracy and capitalism throughout the world, more kids like us have been able to enjoy opportunities to pursue higher education and higher standards of living—whether in the United States, South Africa or India. Our world is privileged in the 21st century, regardless of our nationality, race, gender, religion or sexuality, and we are only going to become more privileged as the years go on.
It is easy—no, it is convenient—to forget that the tenets of conservatism had something to do with this rise in prosperity. Today, we stand ready to undermine the singular concept of citizenship that we have exported to the rest of the world over the years, and the brand of capitalism that guided the world into this prosperous century.
My peers in colleges across the country refuse to engage with illegal immigration and abortion as issues that could corrupt the sacred institution of citizenship and concept of liberty as it was developed by our founding fathers. The truth is, the instinctual demonization of charter schools, the oil and gas industry, and American interventionism—to pick a few traditionally conservative causes—are examples of cheap, arm-chair moralism that often ignores the good that conservative ideas have wrought for the very people liberals champion. These examples suggest to me that my liberal friends cannot be as cavalier and flippant in their dismissal of conservatism as they would like to be.
While I personally believe that conservative policies will, on balance, help the disenfranchised more than liberal policies in the long run, I am not asking that all my peers agree with me. All I ask is that the merits and successes of conservative causes be given more consideration than they are currently given on campuses like Duke’s. If the liberal movement on college campuses has its way, the next generation of America’s policy-makers will speciously lead with an eye for the facially humanitarian. A movement should win thanks to its substance—not thanks to a marketing campaign that panders to this nation’s do-gooder youth.
DPU’s Burke & Paine is a biweekly column that runs on alternate Wednesdays. Each column will feature a different writer and will cover a different topic related to political engagement. Trinity senior Pi Praveen wrote this week’s column.
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