Baylor University YAF and the Meaning of ‘Conservatism’

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Zachary Miller, president of the Young America’s Foundation (YAF) chapter at Baylor University, publicly “disassociate[d]” his chapter from the national organization and changed his club’s name to “the Baylor Bull Moose Society” in a nod to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s breakaway party. This move is indicative of the larger internal conflict on the American right between traditionalists / ‘America First’ers on one side and libertarians on the other. 


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Central to YAF’s understanding of conservatism is Reaganite ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.” Through their Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise, YAF claims to “[educate] and [inspire] young people to defend and articulate free market principles.” However to some conservative commentators, among them New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari, this pursuit of “unrestrained liberty” has made American conservatism a “failure.” Miller’s reasons for leaving YAF National are similarly based in concerns about free market capitalism, writing that his newly-formed club’s goal is “to promote conservative ideas which aid the American worker, preserve and promote the American family, uplift the poor and downtrodden, and ensure that Americans of traditional Christian faith can freely serve God, not to promote “a corporatist conservatism which is chiefly concerned with protecting the interests of wealthy progressives.” He then charges YAF with “advocat[ing] for the [protection] of these interests.” The free market right is, he says, “cling[ing] desperately to a dead consensus” of “free trade absolutism, unrestricted immigration, endless foreign wars, and stagnant wages.” Miller denies “[despising] markets,” but does want “preserve the God-given rights of the American people against monopolistic encroachment.” With these considerations in mind, the Baylor YAF board made the decision to split from YAF National, asking other YAF groups to try to “change the culture from the ground up” but is pessimistic about the potential for this, and thus recommends that other chapters follow his lead in breaking away. He concludes that his ultimate goal is to “embrace a new vision of conservatism as the inevitable future of our movement” over “the dead consensus.” 

These critiques come, again, at a moment of significant division on the right. Washington Post’s Jeffrey Kidder and Amy Binder analyze the conflicts that have become increasingly prevalent within right-wing circles since Trump’s ascendency in 2016. For example, several prominent College Republicans’ chapters denounced Trump in 2016, while TurningPoint USA endorsed him and his policies. Trump, with his socially-conservative position on immigration and economically-moderate positions on matters relating to manufacturing, tariffs, and trade policy, is markedly distinct from the free market ideology Miller critiques YAF for. In another manifestation of this conflict, Jeremiah Childs, Vice Chair of the Maine Federation of College Republicans, warns that “traditional” conservatives– think Mitt Romney, George Bush, or John McCain —  “don’t focus enough on issues we care about,”, and that without change “the party will die.” The simultaneous rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, left-wing and right-wing populists respectively, speak to this distaste for the current political establishment. In several discussions I have had with the students of the Clemson College Republicans chapter, these same battle lines are drawn out; while some students defend the America First mindset of Miller’s letter, many others maintain the Reaganite free market positions of YAF, and still more are in-between. These internal conflicts over the heart and soul of American conservatism are only likely to increase in intensity with the end of Donald Trump’s term, as libertarian elements seek to take back the Republican Party from Trumpism and populists seek to maintain their hold and influence. What will happen when the dust settles is uncertain, but if Miller’s letter, the increasing popularity of America First-ism among Gen Z, and the grassroots appeal of populism are anything to go by, the ideas Miller posits will continue to grow in influence and popularity.

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