Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. In her new book, Raising Them Right, Kyle Spencer documents a coordinated and well-funded right-wing movement aimed at young people to bring ultra-conservative and sometimes radical ideas into the mainstream. Organizations have spent millions of dollars recruiting and training young people.
They use social media, flashy trips to conservative conferences in vacation hotspots, celebrity conservatives, and wedge issues from the so-called culture wars to draw in young folks, preparing them to become future leaders of American conservativism. Joining me now is Kyle Spencer, author of the book, Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America's Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power. Kyle, welcome to The Takeaway.
Kyle Spencer: Well, thank you. I'm so glad to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, as I am thinking about and having read the book, my main takeaway, I suppose in part was, well, it seems like isn't that what you're supposed to do if you want your ideology to continue to be relevant into the next generation? Aren't you supposed to invest in young people what they think and how they think?
Kyle Spencer: Yes, it's a great point because when I was working on this book and I first started, letting the young people I was writing about that I was going to be doing this, I would explain to them that I was actually very impressed with how they were organizing and how they were supported by their elders, financially and otherwise. One of them said to me, "So what you're doing is you're writing a guidebook for the Democrats." I said, "Maybe, I hope so."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Look, it's not a small point, and I've spent my entire career as a college professor, 25 years on a variety of college campuses. I have certainly seen some of this investment, everything from my students, many of them truly students with whom I'm quite close and have had productive working relationships who are part of Turning Point. I've watched the support of conservative student-run newspapers on campus that sometimes have larger budgets than some campus units. Again, on one hand, I can see why that can feel like outsiders coming in. Again, on the other hand, I see the guidebook aspect.
Kyle Spencer: Yes, the problem or the challenge that we have, I think, for Democrats versus Republicans is that there is really an attempt to pass down a guidebook, an ideology, and a way of doing things that is very systematic and very organized. That's been really baked into this to the modern conservative movement, which obviously sprung up in the 1960s. The democrats, liberals, progressives, they just don't have that cohesiveness. I think what we're seeing right now is they're reaping the benefits of years and years of organizing and training, and the Democrats are seeing the effects of what happens when you don't do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a little bit about the actual history and strategies here.
Kyle Spencer: The modern conservative movement, the faction of it that I'm really writing about here starts at the Republican National Convention. In 1960s, Barry Goldwater wins the Republican nominee and goes off to run against Lyndon Johnson. He has a huge following among young conservatives, and he's fiery, hates the press, and every man hates the elitist liberals, and they just fall in love with him and work hard to try to get him elected. Of course, he loses to Lyndon Johnson and they're devastated.
I just want to make this point. It's really important to understand that the modern conservative movement that we see right now holding so much control in our country, started at a moment when conservatives felt that they had been utterly defeated. The reason I bring that up is just as a little bit of an aside, we can have hope, right? We can have hope because a lot of Democrats right now feel utterly defeated, but that's how they began. They go to Washington, these young guys, mostly guys, but a few girls, and they say, We're going to build this thing and we're going to build it for the long term.
We're going to organize, we're going to get funding, we're going to create think tanks, we're going to create conferences, and perhaps most importantly, we're going to start a training academy called the Leadership Institute, where we're going to teach young people how to organize. Everything that we see now, the cohesiveness and the group think and the group talk, even the online social media messaging that can be so abhorrent to so many progressives and to Democrats and liberals but that seems to be so alarmingly effective for conservatives, this was all baked into their plan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do you square this with the public discourse that young voters are basically all Democrats, that bringing young voters in will improve the chances of the Democratic party, and I think the very strong myth that college campuses are hotbeds of progressivism?
Kyle Spencer: I think that's a myth. Honestly, I think we're going to see this election what happens with young voters because what we saw in 2020 is that close to 40% of young voters voted for Trump, which I think people don't realize. I think people keep thinking that when we get young voters to the polls, that means Democrats win. I don't know if that's true anymore, partially because these folks on the other side have gotten so good at talking to young voters.
I would say that when you look at the policies that Democrats hold, and you look even at what Biden has done in the last two years, he has really worked to help young people. You've got build that better, you've got a focus on the environment, and you've got the student debt relief, and we're going to see how well he was able to message this commitment he has to young people. In general, the Democrats have not been good in the last some odd years of really messaging their commitment to young people, but what the Republicans and what the conservatives, particularly on college campuses have been good at is messaging who Democrats are, who liberals are.
You get this void, this inability to get through the chaos and get through the noise among Democrats to talk to young people. Then you juxtapose that with this very, very effective negative labeling, consistent, constant, relentless, repetitive labeling of what Democrats and liberals are. Then you can start to understand why young people might be getting an idea about Democrats that's more negative.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kyle, you've given us a little bit of an idea about the strategies. Tell us a bit more about the specific strategies here for bringing young people into the conservative fold.
Kyle Spencer: One of the things that you see a lot on college campuses is that these folks like to traffic in cultural war issues, and they like to stay away from actual real substantial issues. Again, because if these young activists were really going to talk about who cares about getting costs, the cost of college down, who really cares about the environment, who cares about protecting young people from gun violence, who cares about minimum wage, then if you were looking at those issues and if Democrats were able to really discuss those issues and to really get their viewpoints and their positions on those issues out, young conservatives would really have not a lot of leg to stand on.
What you find is that these conservative kids are taught to stay very, very focused on culture war issues and to use this tribalism that we're seeing in our country right now to their benefit. The thing about tribalism is we know a lot of studies have shown that tribalism is really how people are looking at politics today, we see it. We don't need to read studies. We can see it when we go online, we can see it when we talk to people, but there's a kind of us and them, and that people are much more interested in what tribe they belong to, what coffee they drink, or where they live than they are really an actual party systems at this point.
Young people are very used to tribalism because tribalism is clicky. It's like, I'm a [unintelligible 00:08:01] lefty who likes to do X, Y, Z. I'm a more conservative dressing person who goes to church. When you start to use culture wars and divide people, which is what these young kids do on college campuses, then they can start name-calling. "That guy on the campus over there with the beard and the tattoos, he's lazy."
"He supports immigrants who are going to come to this campus and take jobs away from folks after they graduate." "He wants kids of color to come in through affirmative action and take your jobs." He doesn't really want to go get a job. What he wants to do is to use social welfare programs and you're going to go and you're going to get a job and he's going to take your money. This is this constant defining of what progressives and liberals are on college campuses, and this is one of the tactics that these guys use. Again, let's stay away from real issues. Let's just talk in clicky tribalism terms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For me, college campuses should be spaces where all kinds of ideas, even some that we find reprehensible or repulsive, should be available for conversation, discussion, and examination. I actually think that in our general public space, so it's certainly on our college campuses. Talk to me about how to allow a free marketplace of ideas and how those interested in injecting more progressive, liberal, or democratic ideas can be part of engaging in that marketplace.
Kyle Spencer: Yes, the thing that happens on college campuses right now is that young people are told that it's actually conservative kids who don't get a word in edgewise. That there's a campaign that conservatives in the conservative industry has created, which is to constantly highlight any instance in which a progressive kid is actually getting in the face of a conservative or trying in any way, shape or form to keep really gross ideas off of their campus.
That's really not what's happening, that's just a system that these kids are taught to do, which is to video, and audio anything that happens on a college campus that a progressive does to slap it up online, to edit it, and to make people in this country think that college campuses are intolerant for conservatives, when the reality is conservatives are the one that are having the most loudest, most obnoxious, most intrusive voice on these campuses because conservatives spend so much money funneling into publications, into tabling, into organizations, and into speakers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kyle Spencer is author of the new book, Raising Them Right. Kyle, thanks so much for joining us.
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