President Reagan told us, “There is no better way to establish hope for the future than to enlighten young minds.”
Barry Goldwater understood this. He knew the importance of inspiring and reaching out to young people, which is why he worked with Young Americans for Freedom throughout his career. In fact, YAF helped launch Goldwater onto the national scene by hosting a “Rally for World Liberation From Communism” with 18,500 conservatives in Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Addressing the YAF National Conference in 1974, Goldwater said: “My speaking schedule is heavily loaded with commitments to speak with college groups. They seem to want me, and I love to go. I love to go, because I want to know what the future [holds] for mankind in the years ahead. And believe me, my friends, today’s YAF leaders are tomorrow’s national leaders. I know this because I see it happening all over the nation.”
Our nation desperately needs today’s young people to understand the importance of preserving and advancing freedom, and it is up to us to ensure they do.
Today, more than ever, our leaders need to understand what Reagan and Goldwater did: No major movement has been able to sustain itself without an active, and usually well-funded, youth component.
Many want to reach blacks and Hispanics, arguing they have values in common with our principles. Some brainstorm how we can reach more women. But all of those groups, to varying degrees, have resisted joining us en masse.
The surest audience that we have the best chance to win over right now is young Americans.
They are more persuadable and, once activated, can stay with us for decades. They are already poised to join us because of failed government initiatives, a poor job market and increasing realization that their generation faces record personal and governmental debt.
History teaches us the value of harnessing the power and energy of young people to advance great social movements.
This was the backbone of the civil rights movement, which was led by a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. and a 23-year-old John Lewis.
It was certainly true of the Goldwater-Reagan movement. That is why so many Reaganites and Youth for Goldwater are still active in public policy debates.
It was true of Saul Alinsky’s efforts and the McCarthy-McGovern forces. Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, also built the modern-day libertarian force this way. Even the “environmental movement” harnesses the energy and idealism of our young people to build its base.
In contrast, the Bob Dole, John McCain and even Mitt Romney efforts failed to give any priority to gaining a youth following. Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey overlooked students, and their style of politics collapsed. Even the neocons faded because they were disdainful of youth activism. Likewise, churches without active youth ministries decline or die off.
We can change that. Young America’s Foundation, with the help of our supporters, activates and trains reinforcements — and this is the very best time in an eight-year cycle to do just that.
Now is the time to engage students in public policy debates. Barack Obama’s time in office is winding down, and many new, exciting voices are emerging.
However, we know the left will make its greatest efforts during this time.
Whether or not one leader emerges from the conservative ranks, he or she will need a youth following and a strong base of support of young people to be successful. Reagan understood that. Goldwater understood that.
They, more so than any other conservatives in the past century, inspired a generation of young people to be bold in their activism and advance freedom on their campuses and throughout their careers. In order for our movement to be successful, today’s leaders must do the same.
• Ron Robinson is president of Young America’s Foundation. Jessica Jensen is the chief of staff of Young America’s Foundation.