Liberals need to get hip to young conservatives

Posted: May 30, 2003 12:00 AM

When liberals wear ties and jackets, it's not news. But for some reason, when conservatives put on baggy jeans, it's a huge story.

That seems to be the upshot of a recent cover story of The New York Times magazine titled "The Young Hipublicans," which explores the world of campus conservatives. The teaser for the article says it all: "No taxes, no gun control -but these days blue blazers and gay bashing are not required. College conservatives have learned that by acting like everybody else, they can sway their peers and become the most influential political act on campus."

The article, written by John Colapinto, is full of observations like this one: "Today, most campus conservatives who hope to be effective won't dress like George Bush or Dick Cheney. The idea is to dress like a young person."

In other words, campus conservatives are traveling in mufti -putting on the costumes of liberals and common folk -in order to be taken seriously by the left. As the author says, "The idea is to dress like a young person." The fact that these campus conservatives are, in fact, young people is inconsequential. We know that if these young conservatives could have their way, they'd be wearing topsiders and khakis, slapping around the nearest gay guy they could find.

According to Colapinto, the "idea" to wear ostensibly "hip" clothes comes as much -if not more so -from a web of off-campus rightwing organizations. In fact, these groups provide more than fashion tips. Outfits such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Young America's Foundation provide the kids with talking points, which include not only useful sound bites on guns and taxes but also advice about how to loosen up and use humor in their arguments.

Indeed, according to Colapinto, "most" of what campus conservatives have to say "is something that someone told them to say." Presumably, the bosses of these youth outreach offices for the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy are the ones who made the decision to lift the blue blazer dress code and to abolish the "requirement" to gay-bait.

The Times' article, complete with the usual unflattering photography - all of the conservative kids look like humorless pod people from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - is really just the latest chapter in a long story about how the liberal media establishment has a difficult time understanding that conservatives are normal people.

I don't know if it's ego or ideology, but an astounding share of liberals seem sincerely flummoxed by the idea that conservatives aren't nerds. Oh, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of conservative nerds -in fact some of then are my best friends.

But what makes them nerds is the fact they're nerds. Public policy attracts a disproportionate share of geeky people. What liberals seem to miss is that this is true regardless of ideology. Being leftwing doesn't make nerds cool; it makes them leftwing nerds.

Consider, for example, Michael Lind. You probably haven't heard of him. But he's an influential and extremely bright young intellectual. He used to work at a conservative public policy magazine called The Public Interest. About eight years ago, he quit the magazine and conservatism altogether, sliding to the left on a bunch of issues. All of the sudden, according to the liberal establishment, Lind became hip and cool - attributes those who knew him when he was a conservative never, ever saw in him.

Rolling Stone christened him "what's hot." Lind told The New Yorker that Washington is full of "dweeby white guys." True enough -and Michael Lind could have been the captain of their chess team. But simply because Lind switched ideological affiliations, The New Yorker chose to christen him "a recovering dweeby white guy."

Some of this might have its roots in baby boomer mythology. Children of the 1960s grew up in an age when the personal was political. Taking drugs and listening to rock music seemed to be of a piece with opposing Vietnam and supporting civil rights. Promiscuous sex was not only fun, it was the result of the feminist movement. Tune in, turn on, drop out was a political, as well as a cultural, statement.

So those who rebelled against all of that - the conservatives - might have seemed real squares. Of course, there's a lot of propaganda and revisionism in this version of history, but the liberal boomers tend to believe it anyway.

Which is why we still read stories about liberals who are shocked that conservatives are hip or simply that they don't eat their young. This shock translates itself into condescension; conservative success must be attributable to sophisticated string-pullers.

Rightwing kids must be dressing like normal students as part of some strategy, not because they're normal kids.

The irony is that this sort of coverage reveals that the liberal establishment is as out of touch as it was in the 1960s. But now the rebels are the conservatives - which even The New York Times recognizes, finally.