Are young people becoming more conservative?

Young adults care about money and economy, but affiliation not so black and white

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007

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Staff Photo by Reid Silverman.
Eric Hoffman, a senior political science major and member of the Student Environment Action Coalition (SEAC) at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, asks guest speaker and St. Mary’s County Commissioner President F. Jack Russell a question about the how and if local, state and federal governments can support local organic agriculture at the Global Warming Solutions Act town hall meeting inside the Campus Center Monday night.

St. Mary’s College senior Kathleen Kennedy believes most college students at her school and around the country are liberal.

But College of Southern Maryland student Reginald Swann believes his campus is mostly conservative.

So what actually is the political affiliation of young adults these days? Have the progressive attitudes of college-aged kids died with youth activism in politics?

The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute has tracked the attitudes of incoming freshmen at hundreds of colleges nationwide since 1966.

Its 2003 study found that 51 percent of freshmen supported casual sex in 1987; four years ago 42 percent did. In 1989, 66 percent of freshmen believed abortion should be legal; and in 2003, 54 percent did. In 1995, 66 percent of kids agreed that wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes; in 2003 it was 50 percent. Students have traditionally favored stiffer gun control laws, but the study found that there has been weakening support for them over the years.

Is this a true representation of young adults four years later on the brink of a crucial presidential election?

Local and national experts have mixed opinions.

‘‘It has been my impression that students definitely tend toward a fiscal conservatism,” said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. ‘‘Why are they college students? It’s for the promise of returns on the investment. Ultimately, they’re trying to boost their potential earnings. They are close to becoming productive members of society.”

Eberly, who teaches classes on public policy and social welfare, said young people are worried about programs like Social Security and Medicare taking their money and never giving any benefits to them.

‘‘They’re thinking about these ideas more than the general public do. Social conservatism? I don’t know if I’ve seen a lot of that in college students,” Eberly said. ‘‘I see students who come into class and cover the spectrum of ideals.”

‘‘One of my big issues is trying to resolve a social responsibility with a fiscal responsibility. Blossoming national debt is a huge concern,” Kennedy, a politically active student, said.

But while college students might be more conservative fiscally, a spring 2007 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics shows that while 35 percent identify as strictly liberal and 24 percent identify as strictly conservative, 46 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds fall somewhere in between.

That means young people could be an important swing vote for the upcoming 2008 presidential general election, in which 79 percent of them said they plan to vote. Especially when 59 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

No matter whether young people identify as liberal or conservative, the most important issues to them appear to be the same across the board.

About 43 percent of those surveyed by Harvard indicated Iraq and war in general was the most important issue to them, followed by the state of the economy, environmental problems and health care.

But conservative ideas seem to have a stronger following across the country than in the past. Organizations like Young Americans for Freedom, a campus outreach organization for young conservatives that was founded in the 1970s, have seen a drastic increase in funding from private donors who support the spread of conservative ideas. YAF’s budget has dramatically increased in recent years and is now $18 million, said Jason Mattera, spokesman for YAF.

The budget of a liberal, counter-organization, Campus Progress, is $2 million, said Ramya Raghaven, a spokesperson for the organization.

And College Republicans got a record-breaking number of student volunteers to the 2004 Bush campaign, said Ethan Eilon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee. He said the organization hopes to improve those numbers in 2008 by deploying student representatives from state to state and mobilizing more on the web. There are 1,800 College Republican chapters with more than 250,000 members, he added. The College Democrats would not release its figures.

Ryan Werder was a national student leader for Campus Progress throughout college until he graduated from the University of Michigan in May. He said groups like YAF have not become more visible on campus because they have more members or stronger ideals, despite events they’d sponsored like ‘‘Catch the Illegal Immigrant” across the country that have received a lot of media attention this year.

‘‘I think it’s actually a reflection of the fact that they don’t have a strong foothold on campus, and they have to resort to wild tactics to attract attention,” Werder said. ‘‘In my experience I have not seen a major rise in conservative activity.”

Mattera said the reason young people appear to be sharing more conservative ideals is because there are more public outlets to hear them like talk radio, blogs and Fox News.

And since the Reagan era, which helped the Republican Party rise steadily in the White House and in Congress, Eberly said issues like abortion, family and gay marriage have been at the forefront of debate, he said.

‘‘They were getting far more attention with Republicans in the house. Moral issues are being used more for political purpose than they used to,” he said.

One of YAF’s main goals, Mattera said, is to fight political correctness and the status quo on campus that he believes is mostly liberal. ‘‘There’s a thirst for conservative ideas,” Mattera said. ‘‘I think that’s why conservative power on campus [has been] so visible.”

Michael Cain, chair of the political science department at St. Mary’s College and director of the Center on Democracy, does not necessarily agree.

‘‘I think there are some changes occurring in students here at St. Mary’s and in the United States,” he said. ‘‘I think if you compare what’s happening now vs. 20 years ago you see there’s not that strength of conservatism there was. I don’t think there’s too much movement there. I think there are a larger number of traditional liberals.”

Kennedy said she has a few friends who signed up for College Republicans when they were freshmen who want to leave the club because they’ve changed their views.

Students are not less politically active than they used to be either, Cain said. In fact, he said he believes young people have become more politically aware since the 1980s and 1990s.

‘‘After 9⁄11 there was a noticeable change in political activism. That’s way more important than the division between the right and the left,” he said, acknowledging Maryland’s low young voter rate.

However, the Harvard study indicated 66 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds did not consider themselves to be politically engaged or active.

Cain said that’s probably because students aren’t sure what that really means.

‘‘I think they care about particular issues. If you look at what is happening on our campus as an example, you will see that students are deeply involved in environmental issues and they are voting [nationally] in greater numbers since the 2000 election,” he said.

The issues CSM students care about?

‘‘It’s not what they’re talking about in the news,” said Swann, who is student association president.

‘‘They’re worried about the here and now as opposed to abstract ideas of world peace. That doesn’t affect them on Friday. I think that has to do with the age and socioeconomic status,” he said. ‘‘It’s trending more conservative here on campus. You will find alternate viewpoints on life in general.”

While flipping through yearbooks from the 1960s and 1970s, Swann found that CSM students appeared to be extremely politically active, with mock Democratic and Republican conventions and other political groups, he said. But now Swann said there aren’t any of those types of groups on campus.

‘‘We’ve been battling student apathy for the past couple of years. I believe that there is the ‘we’re going to hell in a hand basket’ attitude. They feel a little defeated by the system,” he said.

Nonetheless, Eberly said he does not think the political philosophy of young people is ideologically driven.

In fact, the Harvard survey shows that 40 percent of young adults identified with the Independent party or were unaffiliated, as opposed to 35 percent with the Democratic Party and 25 percent with the Republican Party.

‘‘Students are wondering what they are going to have to do in the future just to try to fix some serious problems that we’re facing,” Eberly said.

As for the future of young voters in the 2008 general election and their politic tendencies in years to come, Kennedy predicts, ‘‘We are forming our political identities at this time. It’s going to be wide open.”

E-mail Kayleigh Kulp at