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Josh Lederman/MEDILL

Young and conservative in the age of Obama

by Josh Lederman
June 02, 2010

Josh Lederman/MEDILL

Patrick Kelly, 17, tells how his conservative activism has often been met with unpleasant reaction

Gay rights: How young conservatives approach a bellwether social issue

One issue where many young conservatives stray from the party line is gay rights--and particularly same-sex marriage.

Across the country, people are coming out of the closet in greater numbers and at younger ages. As a result, even youth who travel in conservative circles have openly gay people in their peer group. Research shows that people who have a gay friend or family member are more likely to support gay rights, regardless of their political affiliation.

“On the issue of gay rights I tend to be more moderate than most conservatives because I know gay people,” said Tyler Hinds. “I don’t want them to be unhappy people.”

Even those with strong religious views are finding ways to incorporate the idea of equality for the LGBT community with their obligations to their faith. Hinds is a Mormon who describes himself as fairly religious, and Joseph “Tex” Dozier considers himself a devout Christian.

“When it comes to gay marriage, I struggled with the issue because I’m supposed to hate the sin, love the sinner,” Dozier said. “So I’m not going to penalize someone for a sinful action, because we’re all sinners.”

From a political standpoint, many young conservatives take the libertarian approach, supporting the extension of legal rights to same-sex couples without forcing religious communities to sanction something their members condemn.

“I don’t think it’s a government issue, I think it’s a religious issue,” said Patrick Kelly. “If a church or a minister or a mosque says ‘we’re doing it,’ I don’t care, it’s fine with me.”

It comes down to a value long cherished by the broader conservative movement: keeping the government out of people’s private business whenever possible.

“With your money, with your Social Security, visitation rights,” Dozier said, “you should be able to share that with whoever you want.”

Advice for parents whose kids hold strong political views

- Ongoing communication is key. Your child should feel comfortable talking to you if he or she is feeling ostracized.

- Parents should encourage children to stand up for their beliefs and not be embarrassed by them.

- Help develop your child’s maturity by teaching the value of understanding something from another person’s perspective. As much as you believe your way is the right way, someone else may be just as firmly entrenched in their view.

- If your child’s views conflict with your own, encourage their individual will and sense of self, instead of chastising them for their beliefs.

- Above all else, what is modeled at home sets the precedent for tolerance and individuality. Forget “do as I say, not as I do” - Your child will watch your behavior for cues on how to treat others.

Source:  Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D., Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and faculty, Cedars Sinai Medical Center

“When you’re a conservative, they look at you as a backward person,” said Tyler Hinds, a college sophomore from Swanwick, Ill.

Hinds grew up in an ideologically split family in southern Illinois. His father’s side was made up of blue-collar, conservative Democrats and his mother’s side traditional Republicans.

But Hinds, 18, came into his own political identity during high school, when President Bush announced a troop surge in Iraq in early 2007. Hinds supported the surge, but his peers thought he was clinging to a lost cause and employing the same thought processes their grandparents employed in the Vietnam era.

“I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness,” Hinds said. “They might still talk to you about something else like sports,” he said, “but when it got around to politics, you tended to be laughed at, ignored. Nobody really wants to talk to you.”

It’s an experience shared by many young conservatives living in an era of rapid political and social change; growing up in the state that spawned the Democratic machine, “Chicago-style politics” and President Barack Obama.

How permanently Democratic the Land of Lincoln really is may be fun fodder for pundits and politicos, but it doesn’t change the situation on the ground: Illinois is perceived to be solidly blue territory. For young people on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, growing up here can mean feeling isolated and ostracized just at the age when everyone craves acceptance by their peer group.

“I’ve been called Nazi, hater, fear-mongerer, Fascist, so many things by so many people,” said Patrick Kelly of Palos Park. 

The 17-year-old serves as his local GOP precinct captain and identifies as part of the Tea Party movement. Kelly said he’s had experiences where even close friends reacted to his conservatism as if he’d told them he was evil. 

“They just completely reacted in shock, sometimes disgust," he said.

That kind of language is out of place, according to Demetra DeMonte, a Republican National Committeewoman and 2004 and 2008 RNC Chicago area delegate who regularly works with young conservative activists.

“Anyone who would call someone in the Tea Party movement a Fascist or a Nazi doesn’t know what the term means,” DeMonte said. “Someone who is standing up for liberty is not a Nazi.”

And the consequences can be real and very serious. That kind of name-calling should be properly labeled as bullying, said Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.

On the issues

For a generation entering the workforce under the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, the conservative platform on jobs, economic opportunity and lower government taxing and spending is increasingly appealing.

“The environment here in Illinois is changing,” said DeMonte, who was raised in an active Democratic home but made the switch in her 20s. “Young people I talk to are very, very afraid for their future. They feel that they will be paying the debts of their parents and their grandparents.”

And for a young white man like Kelly growing up amid increasing diversity – he says most of his friends are non-white – resistance to his fiscally conservative views can seem like baseless accusations of intolerance.

“I can’t disagree with the president at all and not be called a racist or hating black people,” Kelly said. “I never treated anyone differently because of race.”

It can be even more confusing when a young person like Hinds perceives his views as the best way to help people, but others perceive them as selfish and punitive to the disadvantaged.

“Capitalism and the free market make so much sense to me and to millions of other people. What was it that I said that turned people off?” Hinds said. “I do want to help people. It makes you wonder what you have to do to make these people think you’re not a bad person.”

A two-way street

The resistance doesn’t only come from the other side. Many young Illinoisans who identify generally with the conservative movement are at odds with some aspects of the party platform – particularly when it comes to social issues, where young people of all persuasions tend to be to the left of their parents and grandparents. Gay rights, environmental policy and drug laws are common topics where for younger conservatives find themselves at odds with others in their  party.

For Kelly, the issue that comes up time and again is animal rights. A vegan who fervently opposes hunting, Kelly says his debates within the Republican community occasionally get heated, while in other instances his friendship with other conservatives has prompted them to become vegetarians.

“I always do meet the occasional person who thinks my views are completely wrong on this, [who think] I’m wrong, I’m evil, I’m distorting it,” Kelly said. “Sometimes they’re really religious and saying I’m perverting the Bible or going against God’s word.”

Conservative in the classroom

Surprisingly, conservative youth often find their strongest resistance comes from the very people charged with fostering their intellectual independence: teachers.

“In my courses, my views on government and commerce are constantly dismissed and often attacked,” Jeffrey Hubbard, a 24-year-old University of Chicago graduate student and conservative organizer, said in an email. But Hubbard says he finds it refreshing and that it keeps him honest. “At the end of the day, it reminds me of how much work there needs to be done in the fight for free markets and personal freedom.”

It’s not as rosy a picture in middle school and high school, when the influence of teachers on impressionable students can impede the ability for conservatives to make their case without being shut down. Patrick Kelly was home-schooled for high school, but attended Chicago schools through 8th grade.

“The teachers really did express their views to the students all the time,” Kelly said. “I did want to express mine, but at the same time I really didn’t want to be ostracized by the rest of my peer community.”

During his first year at Rend Lake College, a two-year college in Ina, Ill., Tyler Hinds was in a philosophy class discussing Erich Fromm’s “To Have or to Be,” and argued against the premise that the Bible advocates Socialism. As soon as his views were apparent to the professor, who Hinds described as leftist, the professor “dumbed down” Hinds’ point of view and turned the class against him.

“He misconstrued my words, made me go on the defensive and it was a very unpleasant experience to see how if it’s a teacher in authority, people my age can be so turned one way or the other,” Hinds said. “I was very anxious, nervous when it happened and then spent the next week obsessing, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

Lesson learned: Hinds doesn’t offer his conservative views as readily in college anymore.

“I’m very hesitant to say that around them because I know they’ll think of me as uncaring person,” Hinds said. “It hurts. I don’t think many people tell you that it doesn’t hurt.”

That hesitation doesn’t always stop when a student walks out of the classroom. Young conservatives report being wary of how they display their views in all aspects of campus life.

“It’s Obama mania and everyone holds Obama sacred here,” said Joseph “Tex” Dozier, president of University Republicans at University of Chicago, where Obama taught law before ascending to the presidency. “If I want to make progress with the community here, the last thing I should do is come out wearing some big anti-Obama T-shirt.

Career impacts

When it comes time to finish school and enter the workforce, young activists like Dozier who have been involved in conservative causes have a difficult decision to make. If they list their conservative activism on their resume, will it help or hinder their chances of getting a job in Illinois?

For Dozier, his activism is nothing to be ashamed about – rather, it’s a point of pride that he gladly displays on his resume. He said it hasn’t negatively affected him, and if anything, his leadership experience is a great topic for conversation in an interview.

“If anyone is going to think, ‘Wow, he’s a Republican, I don’t want him,’ then I don’t want to be associated with that person,” Dozier said.

And sometimes it can be an unexpected advantage. Hubbard says his experience with conservative politics helped him land a job as a project coordinator for MySpace Impact, which provides a platform for non-profits to fund-raise. His boss was already well connected to Democratic party leaders and wanted someone who had worked extensively with Republicans.

Overcoming the challenges

Young conservatives say they’ll be successful even in a state like Illinois if they can overcome the reputation unfairly bestowed upon them.

“I think the biggest challenge is to get over the stereotype of who we are,” Kelly said. “A lot of people [think] we’re just following party lines, that we’re for the same type of government, no changes, nothing good, just higher taxes on the poor and not being compassionate.”

It’s an approach that beckons the eternal American narrative of fighting the uphill battle and standing up for what you believe in, despite the winds of public opinion gusting against you.

“You kind of feel good because there are challenges you have to overcome,” Kelly said, “but it can also be very tiring.”

But Demonte, the Republican operative, sees a possibility of empowerment: More and more young people, who were previously independents or Democrats, are being driven by the economy to the Republican party.

There are over 800 paid members of Chicago Young Republicans, according to its spokeswoman, and the Facebook page for the Federation of Illinois Young Republicans has over 1200 members.

“Yes, we are a blue state but I believe we can become a swing state,” DeMonte said. “People are standing up for the first time in many years.”

The midterm elections just over five months away are already being called a test of whether the largely youth-drive momentum that brought Obama to office was a one-shot deal, or if Democrats can resurrect that energy despite continuing economic woes and a lack of progress on many of his campaign promises.

If Republicans can commandeer that youthful energy and claim important political seats in November, they may be able to turn even a state as blue as Illinois purple.

“We have unbelievable opportunities here,” DeMonte said. “I would not be surprised to see many, many Republicans working in Illinois, in Obama’s home state." 

There are Young Republicans (YR) and College Republicans (CR) groups in almost every corner of Illinois. Of the 1500 active College Republicans groups in the United States, 28 are in Illinois, according to the College Republicans National Committee. This interactive map shows you exactly where they are.