The young and the conservative
By Amanda Taccone
Student Vote 2004 Youthbeat
It wouldn't be difficult to find an adult who would finish the phrase "Kids these days..." with "are far too liberal." Many parents (and almost anyone over the age of 30) are quite convinced that today's youth are unconcerned with tradition, and far too eager to embrace change.
This assumption may not be true, however.
A 2002 poll done in the U.S. by the University of California, Berkeley, showed that on certain issues, teens and young adults lean further to the right than those a few years their senior might expect.
On issues like prayer in schools, abortion and support of faith-based charities, American youth (those under the age of 26) were more supportive of the conservative stance, a finding that surprised the researchers.
For example, of the over 1,200 people interviewed, about 44 per cent of youths ages 15 to 22 supported government restrictions on abortion, while only 34 per cent of adults over 26 supported the same restrictions.
This has led some to believe that young people are becoming more conservative.
Does the same trend hold true for the young of Canada? And is it reflected in young people's involvement in the newly-formed Conservative Party of Canada?
Kasra Nejatian, 21, is the president of the Ontario Campus Conservatives. He says he has seen significant growth in youth involvement in the Conservative movement. And he says the growth is not the result of blind party loyalty: "I think more conservative youth are ideologically conservative, they don't think about voting for the Conservative party this election or the Liberal party this election, they think of conservative principles...and it's a very philosophical and ideological decision."
The past president of the PC Youth Association, Patrick Harris, 21, says he's also seen growing youth involvement in the Conservative party, but he thinks it has to do with the youth who are already involved. "Conservative youth are more organized, so at the end of the day they're able to recruit more members. So I think better organization is another factor that helps [Conservative youth groups] gain members."
But Laura Miller, the president of the Ontario Young Liberals, disagrees. The 25-year-old says that the federal Liberal leadership race and the recent Liberal win in Ontario's provincial election have helped draw the attention of almost 25,000 youth, either in support of Paul Martin or to the party itself.
Some might turn this argument around, given that Ontario's new Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty, had help from a right-leaning campaign platform to win the race.
What are the issues that draw youth to the right-leaning parties? Conservative promises to rebuild Canada's underfunded military and proposals that would see tax breaks for newly graduating students are what Harris sees as some of the main draws.
Nejatian was prompted to join the Conservatives when he started to notice the "brain drain," with all his fellow business students heading south of the border to find better career opportunities. He adds that a lack of support for entrepreneurship and a misdirected emphasis among liberal groups on issues that don't directly affect Canadian youth are also drawing support away from the Liberals.
But Miller says that part of the reason the number of youth involved in the Liberal party is growing is because the party has a more global perspective. "I think people of my generation are more apt to look at and think about those issues beyond our own doorstep, whether it's trying to help AIDS in Africa, or deliver generic drugs to Africa, or the wars that are happening outside our borders, we're more aware of those issues. We do still care about accessible and affordable post-secondary education and accessible health care, but at the same time our eyes are open to Canada's role in the world."
Both Harris and Nejatian think that the current direction of the Liberal party has helped the Conservatives.
Harris says the Liberal sponsorship scandal and the uniting of the right have both played a role, "The youth will look for new options, so maybe the circumstances are lucky, certainly [the Conservative party] is now an option because there's a united voice."
Nejatian believes part of the move to the right comes from increasing frustration with the liberal perspective. "I think it's a direct response to the extreme left movement...people are saying it's the absolute irrationality of the left that's driving so many people to come to us and say, how do we oppose this, because they don't represent who we are and they don't represent what we think. It's the silent mainstream becoming less silent."
Miller, however, says it's the Liberals that are the mainstream, and it's when issues hit home that people get involved. "I think that particularly here in Ontario people of my generation, 18-24, have seen what right-wing conservative or neo-conservative politics can do to our social fabric, to our entrenched social institutions and it's something that Ontarians and particularly people of my generation have objected to, and I think that as Canadians...we do value social institutions and are more apt to support those parties that are centre or that are centre-left."
It seems then that everyone can at least agree that youth will choose their party based on the issues that are most important to them. They also admit that events that put their party in the spotlight, like leadership races, help boost support.
But Harris thinks there might be one more contributing factor that draws youth to the conservative side. "Another thing is that conservative youth are more likely to get involved because being liberal when you're young is like going with the status quo or what's expected, but if you're conservative, you stand out and are more likely to get involved." And the young people do like to rebel, after all.
So while right-leaning youth seem to be getting more involved, whether this means more youth are turning to the right as an alternative is a question that will only be answered when they go to the polls in June for Student Vote 2004.
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