Spend a day with young conservatives, and you may find that they don’t have much to say about the U.S. economy. Their current priorities — social issues like abortion and transgender rights — could be a signal that the modern conservative movement is moving away from its traditional messaging focused on free markets and smaller government, at least one political scientist says.
Many of the young people attending the National Conservative Student Conference this week in Washington, D.C., said the health of the economy was not a burning issue for them. The event, hosted by Young America’s Foundation — an organization that calls itself an outreach organization of the conservative movement — features speakers like Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who served as speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999.
Among older conservatives, you’d be more likely to hear support for things like “anti-tax, anti-IRS, anti-government regulation” policies, said Matthew Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University.
Although inflation is the most important issue to 77% of Republicans, according to a report from Pew Research, college students, in interviews with MarketWatch, instead mentioned education, abortion, identity politics, guns and “transgenderism” as the main issues facing the country.
This reflects “what the energy of the Republican Party is in the conservative movement,” Dallek said. “All these questions of identity and culture, and the sense that America is, as they see it, slipping away from them” is what animates the modern conservative movement, he said. “It’s not energized so much by tax cuts or deregulation.”
But when pressed, even the young people who claimed indifference to economic issues expressed frustration about the economy.
Breana Marsh, who is the director of membership at Young America’s Foundation and has a degree in finance, said that for her, the biggest issues are, “from the conservative perspective, the Second Amendment as well as transgender issues.”
When asked about the economy, Marsh said, “I don’t like the way that we’re going,” adding, “The policies being implemented across the United States just are not good.”
When asked about specific policies, she said, “Truthfully, I couldn’t name you any right now.”
William Wight, a student at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, said that mental health is the most important issue the country faces. But among economic issues, the high cost of living is particularly troubling to him. In an ideal world, he said, the solution should be up to businesses, but, if need be, the government should get involved because “the cost of living has to go down.”
He added: “My hope gets lower when I look at the economy.”
Other conference attendees who said they took a particular interest in economic issues also shared their views. Some said that the economy is in fact the most important issue, because Americans across the board are suffering.
“I vote for the money,” said Victoria Bringol, a student at the University of Oklahoma. She said that although the cost of living keeps rising, wages are not going up. She described friends who work full-time jobs to put themselves through college, saying they sacrificed their mental health and grades but that $13-per-hour wages still weren’t enough to make ends meet.
“We’re not asking for handouts, just wages that pay better,” she added.
Bringol said the most frustrating cost increase is that of college tuition. Other students sitting around her at a table echoed that sentiment, although they said that canceling student loans is a bad idea because, as one noted, “people should pay what they owe.”
Bringol agreed with someone who said that “paying thousands of dollars to attend a school where your voice as a conservative student isn’t valued is extremely frustrating.”
YAF’s Marsh also weighed in on this topic. “Students, when they’re feeling alone on campus, even though they’re not alone, and they feel ostracized and they feel like everyone is screaming at them that they’re crazy … they look to YAF,” which she described as an organization that “fights for [conservative] students’ rights on campus in a very tangible way.”
Dallek sees this feeling of being ostracized, rather about economic motivations, as a primary reason that many younger people join the conservative movement. The Republican Party “gives them a sense of identity and empowerment,” he said — a feeling that “they’re fighting this sort of dominant liberal culture.”
He continued: “My sense is that young conservatives see themselves as part of this almost minority on college campuses, for example, that they’re kind of the the ones who are being oppressed and being canceled.
“I think that’s probably a more pronounced feeling, at least amongst some young conservatives, than it is among older generations,” he said.