Young Conservatives Find Their Place In Politics

President Barack Obama rode a wave of enthusiasm — much of it from youthful voters — to the White House in 2008. But now some are questioning whether the political youth-quake has swung in favor of conservatives. As the National Conservative Student Conference meets this week in Washington D.C, host Michel Martin speaks with keynote speaker and former Secretary of State of Ohio, Ken Blackwell about the growing conservative youth movement. She also hears from Jordan Marks and Daniel Diaz, who are both participating in the conference.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's President Obama's birthday. He's 49. And along with having some cake in his honor, the president's supporters are asking Obama fans to bring out their campaign buttons and Obama Ts, and whatever else they may have in their closets. With the president's approval ratings hovering at 45 percent and the midterm elections just a few months away, it is no secret that the Democrats are trying to rekindle that yes-we-can spirit.

It's also no secret that young people were critical to that spirit. Younger voters were Obama's strongest supporters in the 2008 election. And the Democratic Party's advantage among the so-called millennials predates that. They were the party's best age group in the 2004 and 2006 elections, too.

But it turns out that younger voters are showing new enthusiasm for Republicans. Against that backdrop, a conference of young conservatives is meeting in Washington, D.C., this week. And we will talk about, and with, a couple of them.

We turn to Afghanistan a little later, and what one reporter called an unspeakable crime against a young woman who was brutalized by her in-laws. And we open up the beauty parlor to take on issues that the women in the shop want to talk about. That's all coming up.

But first, this year's National Conservative Student Conference, the largest gathering dedicated to conservative college students in this country, is in Washington this week, with 400 attendees and a lineup of speakers that includes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state for Ohio.

Mr. Blackwell is joining us now. He's a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. He's with us on the phone from Ohio. Welcome, Mr. Blackwell; thanks for joining us.

Mr. KEN BLACKWELL (Senior Fellow, Family Research Council): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us are two young men who are attending the National Conservative Student Conference. Daniel Diaz is the Florida project director for the Republican Majority Political Action Committee. He's here with us in our studio in Washington along with Jordan Marks, the executive director of Young Americans for Freedom. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DANIEL DIAZ (Florida Project Director, Republican Majority Political Action Committee): Thank you for having us.

Mr. JORDAN MARKS (Executive Director, Young Americans for Freedom): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Jordan Marks, I'm going to start with you. You have been involved with the Young Americans for Freedom for 11 years. I think it is worth mentioning, also, that you are a Democrat as well. I did want to ask how you came to an understanding of yourself as a conservative.

Mr. MARKS: Well, I started out when I was 17, and my older brother had the foresight to grab me at a younger age and start educating me about what I was going to come to learn what was happening in our college campuses across America, which is a liberal indoctrination taking place in the classrooms.

Essentially, they're teaching students that we should not be working for our future, that we should rely on government a bit more than we should be. And so he introduced me to the ideas of Young Americans for Freedom, which is our (unintelligible) statement, essentially highlights limited government, strong national security, also to have a strong national defense. I mean, these are the principles - free-market based.

MARTIN: Okay. Daniel, what about you?

Mr. DIAZ: Well, when I speak, I like to tell people I was a conservative before I was out of the womb. I'm a first-generation Cuban-American. So...

MARTIN: Which as a community is known for having a conservative bent orientation in this country, yeah.

Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, because our freedoms were taken away from us from the country that my parents are from. So when we came to - this country offered us all the freedoms that we have. And we're extremely grateful for America and we love America, and that's why a lot of Cubans are involved in the political realm.

But I really got involved in politics around the age of 18. Started, you know, looking around and getting interested. And then in 2006, I got involved with the Christian Family Coalition. And from there, I received a lot of training from the Leadership Institute, which has afforded me the opportunity to run campaigns around the country - in Arizona, in the state of Florida, South Carolina.

And now I work for the Republican Majority Campaign, which is a political action committee that endorses conservative candidates that believe in limited government, individual liberties, free-market enterprise, traditional family values and strong national defense.

MARTIN: Okay. Let me just ask you briefly before I bring Mr. Blackwell into the conversation. The data is pretty - is clear. And we want to talk about the shift that's happened over the course of the year, in a minute. But the data is pretty clear that people your age tend to be tend to have a very strong predisposition to the Democratic Party, and tend to be socially liberal.

And I wanted to ask, do you ever feel, Jordan, out of step with your peers on that score? I mean, you are a Democrat, but aside from that.

Mr. MARKS: I think I'm more of a what someone would call a 1950s Democrat. You know, in the eyes of Governor Edison, I follow on that line, from New Jersey. But there is definitely a majority on campus that is more socially liberal, less fiscal responsibility, more dependence on the government.

And I think we're seeing that shift take place because the education of these ideas are taking place at a younger age. We're seeing these ideas brought to kids starting off in junior high, high school. And then by the time they get to college, it almost seems like this utopia, to where you can flourish and let these ideas take place. But the reality is not on the college campuses. It's afterwards. And that's what we're seeing take place.

And the shift that's taking place today is because kids are hitting that reality sooner. We're seeing more students that are realizing the ideas of hope and change that President Obama promised was really not there. There's no job market. There's no hope when you don't have a job.

MARTIN: Okay. Daniel, what's your take on that? First of all, do you ever feel out of step with other young people your age? You're, what, 25?

Mr. DIAZ: I do. I'm actually the state chairman for Young Americans for Freedom in the state of Florida as well. So I go on college campuses and always recruiting and identifying conservative leaders so I can start a chapter. And the one thing I notice is when I go on campus and I put up a table, I put conservative books up and literally, I have people spitting at me, knocking down the books, calling me a fascist pig because of what I believe. And it's, I would say, 75 to 90 percent of college students lean to the liberal persuasion.

MARTIN: That's harsh.

Mr. DIAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I noted some data earlier that by the end of 2009 - let me just give you the information. This is from the Pew Research Center, which is a respected research organization. The Democratic advantage over Republicans in the 2008 election was huge. Sixty-two percent of the millennials identified as Democrats, compared to 30 percent who identified as Republicans. But over by the end of 2009, that margin had shrunk considerably, to just 14 points. Fifty-four percent identified as Democrats, and 40 percent as Republicans. I'm interested to know why you think that might be.

Mr. DIAZ: Well, I mean, you have to see - you have a nice, fresh, young candidate coming forward. He targeted the youth. He came out and said, trust me; put your hope in me, and we will change the world. And you have to - look, it's similar to JFK in the 1960s. I mean, he blew onto the scene, relatively unknown, and just inspired a whole new generation. But today's generation is not just going to go back to the classroom and not pay attention.

We're involved. We're on social media, we're on the computer, we're on the Internet, we're blogging. We're involved, and we're paying attention to what's going on. And President Obama couldn't step away from the fact that he hasn't followed through on any of his promises. The promises of jobs, and the promises of transparency, are by far the two clearest things that this generation wanted to see changed.

MARTIN: Daniel, what's your take on that? I mean, some would argue he has followed through, that the results yet have not been seen. I think that's what his supporters would say. But it's the economy, in fact - it is no secret that young people are among the hardest hit by this economic downturn.

Mr. MARKS: I think Tim Geithner just said that we're going to see more job losses before we see, you know, before we see - start heading, you know, as far as creation in the job market.

MARTIN: That was Jordan speaking. Daniel, what about you?

Mr. DIAZ: Well, I would have to say that there were a lot of promises the president made that just got the youth excited, but he hasn't really followed through on most of the things that he said. Yeah, he got health care passed and a couple of other pieces of legislation. But ultimately, I think the reason why the number has shrunk as well is because of how radical his agenda is. He is the most radical president we've ever had, from the left.

And I was telling somebody yesterday on the phone that in the conservative movement, the greatest thing to ever happen to the conservative movement is President Obama being elected president.

MARTIN: Okay. This is a good time to bring Ken Blackwell into the conversation. Mr. Blackwell, what is your perspective on this question?

Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, I was enjoying listening because it really reminded me of the second Reagan race. If you go back to the '84 race, Reagan, as opposed to Mondale, actually captured the 18- to 24-year-old vote. That was because he was the candidate of hope and optimism and change.

And Michel, if you go back to another 2009 Pew poll, when they asked the question as to whether or not voters had faith in the free-enterprise system, or whether they wanted to move more to a system that was retributionist in nature, overwhelmingly, 70 percent agreed that they were better off in a free-enterprise system.

I think part of the problem is that the president is now perceived as being anti the free-enterprise system. But I would say he is consistent in that he said during the 2008 campaign that he was for spreading the wealth around. And progressives have a real problem with the inequality of outcomes that the free-enterprise system produces.

And so they are more redistributionist in nature. And in order to do that, they have to grow government, and they have to empower government. And now what you're seeing among young people is a reaction to that.

MARTIN: Now, the voters younger than 30 still favor Democrats by a wide margin, even though that margin has shrunk. It's something like - what, 54 to 30 percent. Why do you think that is, Ken Blackwell?

Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, again, I think that in trends, there is a tipping point. I think that age group is now starting to trend back to a more conservative, more traditional view of how we limit government and believe in the free-enterprise system. And I think that this is a - we're at a tipping point, and a reversal of the trend. And I think we're looking at 1984-type trends.

MARTIN: We're going to take a - we need to take a short break, and we only have about a couple of seconds left in this segment. We're going to come back with our guests. But before we let you go for this short break, Ken Blackwell, what's your message going to be to this group tomorrow?

Mr. BLACKWELL: That essentially, that we have become a culture where earning money doesn't entitle you to it but, you know, wanting money does - and that that's the fallacy of the redistributionist system. And young people have to be on the forefront of changing electoral outcomes, and getting us folks who have a more traditional view of the limitations that we should place on government.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but we are going to come back with our guests. We'll continue our conversation with Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state in Ohio. He's offering a keynote address at the National Conservative Student Conference, here in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Also with us, Jordan Marks. He's attending the conference. He's the executive director of Young Americans for Freedom. He's a Democrat. And Daniel Diaz, project director for the Republican Majority Political Action Committee in Florida. We're talking about the future of the young conservative movement. Please stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear how the story of a young girl from Afghanistan who was brutalized by her in-laws, in an act of domestic violence, could be influencing the date over the future of America's efforts there.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the next generation of American conservatives as the National Conservative Student Conference holds its annual gathering in Washington this week. We have been speaking with Ken Blackwell. He's the former secretary of state of Ohio. He's now a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. He's with us on the phone from Ohio. He's heading here for the conference.

Also with us in Washington is Daniel Diaz. He's 25 years old. He's the Florida project director for the Republican Majority Political Action Committee. And Jordan Marks, the executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative advocacy group. They're here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio.

In the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd like to ask what you think it would take to grow the conservative movement, particularly among younger people, among your peers. Because as we said, that younger Americans, even though they are trending toward the Republican Party, still tend to be firmly entrenched in the Democratic column, and tend to have more socially liberal views than either - than you do or that are associated with the conservative movement.

Mr. DIAZ: Yeah, this is Daniel. I think the best way to bring conservatives back is - and the reason why they lean Democrat when they're so young is because of the college and the university systems. There was a survey taken in 1999 of all the professors in the entire country. And overwhelmingly, 78 percent of them said they were liberal. That's a huge number, a huge change from back in the '70s and '80s, when it was the other way around; 68 percent were conservative. That's because the students of the '60s, '70s, became the professors. So they're indoctrinating students. The numbers are not exact, but normally.

MARTIN: Okay, but so what will it take?

Mr. DIAZ: Getting involved, being active. Going on campuses and teaching them what conservatism is and show them - to me, the lies of the left.

MARTIN: Okay, Jordan?

Mr. MARKS: This is Jordan. You know, one of the things that we're doing is we're also framing our message so that it can be heard by people that are not politically involved, and the ones that are being disenfranchised by what's taking place in the current political climate. We have tons of students that want to get involved.

For example, in California, the California state legislature legislated that you can't have a TV over a certain size because it affects the environment. We reached out to the Videogame Association and said, are you aware of this? This is called government over-regulating. This is what is clearly a liberal agenda. And it's not the Democrat agenda, it's the liberal takeover of the Democratic Party that worries me.

MARTIN: Okay. And Ken Blackwell, you're our senior statesman here, if you don't mind my calling you that. What, in your view, will it take? And if you don't mind, I'd also like to ask, because you are one of the most prominent African-American conservatives in the country - if you also don't mind my mentioning that. One of the other issues that has emerged is that there would be an underlying appreciation for conservative values among - particularly minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics, but that that continually gets thwarted.

But - what they see as the racist elements within the conservative movement, as evidenced by this dustup over - kind of the NAACP-Tea Party resolution. I don't want to get into the details of that. But I would like to ask you about that.

Mr. BLACKWELL: That's - some of the most brilliant conservative thinkers from an economic standpoint, in terms of creating jobs and opportunity - whether you're talking Thomas or Walter Williams - are African-Americans. Well, let me just say, we have to go to where young people are. One of the big challenges that we have to deal with is that Barack Obama and the progressive movement beat us to the communities where young people are.

So we have to utilize new technologies, and we have to talk directly to new social networks. And that's so very important. And I think with the enthusiasm gap or the enthusiasm advantage starting to trend in our direction, we have to make sure that we are using the right communication technologies to put forth a message that our plan of limited government, the free-market system, free-enterprise system, is - these things are the best way for us to create a future.

Look, the Obama administration has sort of gotten off the track - from the stimulus package to Wall Street bailouts, from the attempt at cap and tax, to the intrusion of government into health care in a deeper, deeper, more destructive way. The federal government is happy to spend and mortgage our young people's future. And that's what you're seeing, is the reaction by young people to their future being mortgaged away.

MARTIN: We need to leave it there for now. Ken Blackwell is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Ohio. As we mentioned, he's also the former secretary of state for Ohio. With us in our Washington, D.C., studio: Jordan Marks, the executive director of Young Americans for Freedom., and Daniel Diaz, the Florida project director for the Republican Majority Political Action Committee. And they're here for the conference. I thank you both so much, and all of you for speaking with us.

Mr. DIAZ: Thank you.

Mr. MARKS: Thank you for having us.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Thank you.

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