To be a young person and a conservative is such a rare combination these days it approaches an act of defiance. Voters in their teens and 20s backed President Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio over John McCain last year, amid a flood of support from musicians, movie stars and other youth icons. Late-night TV hosts lampoon Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney as punch lines while MTV throws support to left-leaning causes like gay marriage. But hundreds of young people with a different perspective are flocking to Washington, D.C., for the Young America's Foundation's 31st annual National Conservative Student Conference, which begins Aug. 4. One of them is Lauren Scirocco, a rising senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey. The 21-year-old tells TIME why it's hard to be a conservative in college classrooms, why Palin frightens Democrats and why she thinks Republicans will rise again.
As a conservative, you must feel as if you're swimming upstream sometimes, as so much of youth culture is aligned with Democrats.
Conservatism is under the radar sometimes. The media does a good job portraying conservatives as old white men who smoke cigars, but that's not it at all. I'm here with hundreds of conservative kids today. I actually think of a lot them are afraid to express themselves for fear their peers might look differently at them. I've had liberal professors who would purposefully single me out and say things just to get me riled up. I kind of took it as my duty to sit in class and give the other side, because nobody else was doing it.
What's an example of when you've challenged a professor?
I had one international politics class where the professor was obsessed with global warming. It's all he talked about. So one day I raised my hand and said, "In the '70s we heard about global cooling, and now it's global warming. Who's right?" Other students are really looking for someone to say [professors' views] aren't the only idea out there. I feel like sometimes schools are teaching young people what to think and not how to think.
Why do you think students favored Democrats so heavily in 2008?
Barack Obama visited over 100 college campuses during his campaign. That's something conservatives and Republicans have to take advantage of; they have to be out there on campuses getting their message across.
After the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush and big losses in Congress, conservatism is in a tough place right now. Why are you confident the movement will become popular again?
Look at the way the economy is going right now. People aren't finding jobs; I don't think Americans will stand for it much longer. American is a center-right country, in general, and people live their lives conservatively you want to keep the money you earn, you want to provide for your family. I think everything going on right now with the Obama Administration and the policies they're enacting are going to cause young people to turn to an alternative, and I think that alternative is going to be conservatism.
Have you always been a conservative?
Yes, I grew up in a conservative family. I started getting really interested [in politics] during the primaries of this past presidential election. I realized that politics and government touches every aspect of your life. If we don't know what's going on in government, we don't have a clue what's going on in general.
What's one thing you wish more people knew about young conservatives?
I just wish they knew we existed there are a lot of us out there, and all we want are individual liberties and individual responsibility. I don't want to be told what I should be eating. I don't want to be told how to raise my kid. I don't want to be told that I should be learning Spanish, as Barack Obama told us on the campaign trail. I don't want to be told how to run my own life.
Who are you liking as a potential 2012 presidential contender?
I really like Sarah Palin. I think as a conservative woman, I can really relate to her.
Why does she keep getting so much attention? It seems the media and the public can't get enough.
Conservatives feel like she's someone they can relate to and believe in. Liberals vilify her and make fun of her constantly, and I think that's because they're afraid of her and know she's going to be there in the future. She's not going away.