The Right's New Wing

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PAYING HOMAGE: Students participating in a Young America’s Foundation program stand on a hill overlooking the old Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Earlier this month, a group of students met in Washington to bash George W. Bush, debate the power of multinational corporations and hear a speaker who denounced the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and stricter airport security. A leader of these college kids calls them "the new counterculture," but here's the thing: they aren't liberals. The 185 students were in Washington to attend the 26th annual National Conservative Student Conference.

Many of them think the President has betrayed them by signing bills fattening Medicare and the Department of Education. Though the students embrace small businesses built on enterprise, they criticize big ones for knowing no borders and observing no national loyalties. And while he is fringe even among those students, 40-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur Reginald Jones — who says the Iraq invasion was unconstitutional because Congress never declared war and who decries post-9/11 security measures as infringements on our freedoms — has become one of the most popular figures among the young right. His raucous seminar on the evils of abortion, taxation, the Democrats and "milquetoast" Republicans — as well as the pleasures of NASCAR — didn't end until 2:30 one morning.

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The world of young conservatives, then, brims with surprises — not least that just a few months after the Deaniac moment, college students are returning this month to campuses being transformed by the right. To be sure, the conservative movement has been growing among students for decades — at least since 1951, when God and Man at Yale by William Buckley Jr. became a best seller and helped spawn student-right groups across the nation. As a recent issue of the conservative Campus magazine points out, reporters rediscover the student right every few years, as if it were "very new and very strange." In fact, the movement is very old and very powerful, run not by gangly kids but by seasoned generals of the right. These organizers have worked campuses for years, and — judging by their record-setting budgets and sponsorship of hundreds of campus publications, student groups and guest lectures — they have reached the height of their tactical powers.

Three main conservative groups have reshaped student politics:

The Young America's Foundation (YAF), a Herndon, Va., organization, founded in 1969, that sponsored 200 conservative lectures across the country last year (in addition to the National Conservative Student Conference). At many schools, those speeches have become the biggest events of the semester. Last year at Duke, for instance, YAF speaker Ben Stein, an ex — Nixon aide and former Comedy Central host, attracted 1,500 people, 200 of whom had to be turned away — a bigger crowd than the one that had come to hear Maya Angelou two months earlier. With its $13 million annual budget, the foundation — run by a former Reagan Administration adviser, Ron Robinson — is now the nation's largest advocacy group devoted to student politics. (This YAF is not to be confused with another conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom, which flourished in the '60s and '70s.)

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) of Wilmington, Del., a 51-year-old group whose first president was Buckley. The institute spends nearly $1 million a year helping students publish conservative newspapers. Its Collegiate Network of papers now includes 85 publications, a record number for the institute. The ISI spent an additional $9 million last year on conservative books, periodicals like Campus and fellowships worth as much as $40,000 for individual students.

The Leadership Institute, based in Arlington, Va. Led by former Reagan aide Morton Blackwell, 64, the institute had a record 3,562 graduates last year. The students, most of whom attend college or high school, learn about p.r., fund raising and direct mail; aspiring young pols get "candidate development" training. In its 25 years, according to Blackwell, the institute has trained some 40,000 conservatives — the movement's field army — including nearly 200 who went on to become state legislators and more than 300 who wound up as staff members on Capitol Hill.

Because of the social movements of the '60s and '70s, when we think of college activism, we tend to imagine Kent State and braless young women. But today the left can claim no youth organizations as powerful as YAF, ISI or the Leadership Institute. One of the biggest young-liberal groups, the Sierra Student Coalition (an arm of the Sierra Club), has a budget of just $350,000 for 150 college chapters. There were once as many as 200 left-leaning Public Interest Research Groups at U.S. universities, but today only about half that number exist. Last school year, the 38-year-old National Organization for Women spent twice the amount it usually does on campus in order to publicize April's feminist march on Washington, but the total, $500,000, was just 4% of Young America's budget.

New, energetic liberal groups such as Students Against Sweatshops and the League of Pissed Off Voters have won some media attention, but it's not yet clear whether they will thrive. By contrast, the College Republican National Committee, which atrophied to just 409 chapters in 1998, now lists active members on 1,148 campuses. The College Democrats of America say they have members on 903 campuses, 20% fewer.

Of course, as activists on left and right note when they hear such figures, the left doesn't need to organize on campuses as urgently because universities have traditionally been hospitable to liberal inquiry. "There are thousands of Young America's Foundations around the country for the left," says Daniel Flynn, director of the Campus Leadership Program at the Leadership Institute and author of the new left-bashing book Intellectual Morons. "They're called Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford ..."

Though all four of those institutions have prominent conservatives on their faculties, such professors remain in the minority. Just look at the academy's political donations: according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 72% of university employees' $16.7 million in contributions during this election cycle has gone to the Democratic Party. The figure for Harvard is 97%, and every penny of the $156,000 from the College of William and Mary has gone to the Democrats. Employees of the University of California have given more money to John Kerry's presidential campaign than have workers at any other business or institution; Harvard employees are No. 2. (Full disclosure: employees of Time Warner, which publishes TIME, are No. 5.) George W. Bush has no universities (and no Time Warner) in his top-20 list of employee donations.

But while professors may lean left, many students are tilting right — especially toward that brand of conservatism known as libertarianism. According to a well-regarded annual survey sponsored for the past 38 years by the American Council on Education, only 17% of last year's college freshmen thought it was important to be involved in an environmental program, half the percentage of 1992. A majority of 2003 freshmen — 53% — wanted affirmative action abolished, compared with only 43% of all adults. Two-thirds of frosh favored abortion rights in 1992; only 55% did so in last year's survey. Support for gun control has slipped in recent years among the young, and last year 53% of students believed that "wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now," compared with 72% 11 years earlier.

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